This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub.
First preformed at the Abbey Theatre in 1990, Brian Friel’s Dancing At Lughnasa makes a timely return to Dublin to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The multi-award winning play comes to the Gaiety Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival in conjunction with the inaugural Lughnasa International Friel Festival. A semi-autobiographical memory play, it is set in Donegal and it is narrated by the character of Michael Evans, who recounts the events of the summer of 1936.
Michael (Charlie Bonner) lives with his mother and four aunts, the Mundy sisters, outside the rural town of Ballybeg. Each sister works hard either in the home or the local community in order to keep the household afloat. His uncle, Father Jack, a missionary priest who has returned from years of working in Africa and has an impaired memory due to malaria, also resides in the humble home. The events of the summer unfold around the harvest feast of Lughnasa, as this season passes it brings change to the Mundy household that will forever affect them.
The ensemble cast (Catherine McCormack, Catherine Cusack, Cara Kelly, Vanessa Emme, Mary Murray, Declan Conlon, Matt Tait, Charlie Bonner) work incredibly well together; with the sisters giving wholly believable performances as women who cherish yet tire of each other. Much of the humour arises from the characters of Maggie (Cara Kelly) and Rose (Mary Murray), with the former having some of the best lines from the entire piece. Michael’s absent father, Gerry Evans (Matt Tait). provides a lovable but unreliable role model for his son, while Father Jack (Declan Conlon) is held up as an example of faded greatness.
Far from being soppy and sepia toned, Comyn’s direction unearths the pained heart in Dancing At Lughnasa. As the characters struggle to maintain what they have they untimely lose the very thing they are fighting for. Kate (Catherine McCormack), the self appointed head of the sisters, is intent on keeping the family together and maintaining their self-made system but in trying to do so she ends up deepening the rift between them. The concept of memory punctuates Friel’s script, both from the narrator’s insights but also from the other characters reminiscing about what has passed and what could have been.
Paul O’Mahony’s exquisitely simple stripped back set centres on the heart of the home, the kitchen, where the women congregate daily. A veiled reflective backdrop, sometimes moonlike and resembling a broken map, gives a skewed view of the story, which is exactly what memories are. Certain incidents are punctuated by the flash of a camera bulb as those images are set in the memory of Michael. Interior and exterior are delicately lit (Chahine Yavroyan), as are the emotions of each scene. Particular sounds and tunes (Fergus O’Hare) from the Marconi wireless evoke the past and act as instigators for the dancing that peppers the performance, choreographed by Liz Roche.
In 1999 Friel wrote: “For me the true gift of theatre… is the ringing bell which reverberates quietly and persistently in the head long after the curtain has come down and the audience has gone home”. Friel certainly lives up to his own expectations; this beautiful story echoes long after the show is over and becomes one of those snapshots in the mind that Comyn and the team so eloquently portray on stage. In the week of Friel’s death it would be easy to be overly sentimental about such a nostalgic piece of theatre, but this production of Dancing At Lughnasa breathes new life into the tale of the Mundy sisters. A genuine modern classic.
Writer: Brian Friel
Director: Annabelle Comyn
Runs until October 11 2015