Theatre Eye: Friel renaissance

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2006), Reviews, Volume 14

Andrew Scott (Casimir), Peter McDonald (Eamon), Gina McKee (Judith), Brian Doherty (Willie Diver), Marcella Plunkett (Claire) and Dervla Kirwan (Alice) in Brian Friel’s Aristocrats at the Lyttleton Theatre, London. (Alastair Muir)

Andrew Scott (Casimir), Peter McDonald (Eamon), Gina McKee (Judith), Brian Doherty (Willie Diver), Marcella Plunkett (Claire) and Dervla Kirwan (Alice) in Brian Friel’s Aristocrats at the Lyttleton Theatre, London. (Alastair Muir)

Friel renaissance
Translations
National Theatre, London
Aristocrats
Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
by Mark Coalter

The works of Brian Friel have had a renaissance on the London stage of late. In 2005 Friel’s masterpiece Translations and the less-celebrated Aristocrats appeared in the National Theatre to sell-out audiences, whilst Home Place won the coveted Evening Standard Theatre Award for best play. Unfortunately I missed the latter but managed to catch both National Theatre performances. Indeed, the demand for tickets was so high that I had to travel to the equally pleasant Nuffield Theatre in Southampton to see Aristocrats on its regional tour.
Both plays take place in the fictitious Donegal village of Ballybeg—Translations in the 1830s whilst Aristocrats, written in 1978, has a contemporary setting. Despite this 140-year difference, both works have strong historical and cultural undercurrents that enhance our understanding of Irish history and its people, pre-Celtic Tiger. Parochialism, deference and self-delusion are prominent, counterbalanced by nationalism, social and intellectual betterment, and emigration. Through the experiences and emotions of Friel’s characters one hears the gentle hum of the engine of Irish history. The fears of eviction and famine along with the search for a better life in the New World are never far from the surface in Translations. The unwarranted intrusion from the outside world, intent on imposing its language and customs on a reluctant and recalcitrant community, incidentally with the blessing of Daniel O’Connell, is the main focal point of the play. Conversely, in Aristocrats the children of a once-grand family, gathered together in the decaying ancestral home for the first time in a decade to celebrate a sibling’s marriage of convenience, react in different ways to the past in their once-familiar surroundings and reduced circumstances. Alcoholic escapism, domestic violence and self-delusion manifest themselves as outlets for their frustrations.
The historical context of Translations is the mapping of Ireland in the 1830s by the Royal Engineers, resulting in the Anglicisation of place-names and the introduction of the national schools to the detriment of hedge schools. The action occurs in one such hedge school run by Hugh, a local scholar and drinker, and his lame son Manus. Greek, Latin and the Irish are the principal subjects. Attendees include ‘the infant prodigy’, Jimmy Jack Cassie, a lonely middle-aged eccentric; Doalty, the local ‘lad’; and Maire, who desires to learn English to forge a new life in North America. This aspiration is frowned on by Hugh, who considers the English language only useful ‘for the purposes of commerce’ and in a later discussion with Lieutenant Yolland on Wordsworth professes ignorance of English literature as ‘we feel closer to the warm Mediterranean. We tend to overlook your island.’
Intruding into the shambles of Hugh’s hedge school is his other son, Owen, who has returned from Dublin to join the engineers in the mapping and renaming of Ballybeg, or Baile Beag, and its environs, with Captain Lancey and Yolland.

Billy Carter (Owen, second right) introduces Simon Coates (Captain Lancey, right) to the hedge school’s teacher’s assistant David Ganley (Manus, second left) and students Eugene O’Hare (Doalty), Mairead McKinley (Maire), Jane Murphy (Bridget) and Aislinn Mangan (Sarah). (John Haynes)

Billy Carter (Owen, second right) introduces Simon Coates (Captain Lancey, right) to the hedge school’s teacher’s assistant David Ganley (Manus, second left) and students Eugene O’Hare (Doalty), Mairead McKinley (Maire), Jane Murphy (Bridget) and Aislinn Mangan (Sarah). (John Haynes)

While Lancey is a caricature of an English colonial officer, taking a dim view of the natives, Yolland falls in love with the area and its customs. He wants to learn Irish and settle in Ballybeg once the assignment is completed. Manus’s remark, ‘I understand the Lanceys perfectly but people like you puzzle me’, is one of the leitmotifs of this work. The uneasy rapport between the army and the local population, perhaps analogous to the situation in 1970s Northern Ireland, is one of strained toleration. In Translations this is exacerbated by the abduction and possible murder of Yolland. His falling in love, across the divide, with Maire undoubtedly precipitates his disappearance. Their love scene, where one cannot understand the other, with Maire using her only English phrase, handed down by her mother—‘in Norfolk we besport ourselves around the Maypole’—is a comic moment that produced memorable performances from Mairead McKinley and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor.
Yolland’s disappearance, possibly at the hands of the Donnelly Twins, an unseen but menacing presence alluding to the later emergence of physical force republicanism, leads Lancey to threaten the slaughter of the villagers’ livestock and their eviction if the missing officer is not recovered. And with the fear of the ‘sweet smell’ (potato blight), and Hugh’s lament that ‘a race was springing from Trojan blood to overthrow some days these Tyrian towers’, Friel charts the next stage in Irish history.
In Aristocrats Friel examines a family trapped by its past. This is Friel’s homage to Chekhov, with the offspring of a well-to-do Roman Catholic family returning to the crumbling edifice of the ancestral home for a wedding. A dying and domineering father is confined to bed, his senile ramblings conveyed to the audience through a ‘baby-alarm’ in the library, while the grown-up children, who live abroad and would rather be elsewhere, recover from the previous evening’s exuberance. An academic from Chicago rooting around in the family records as part of an investigation into ‘recurring cultural, political and social modes in the upper strata of Roman Catholic society in rural Ireland since the act of Catholic Emancipation’ complements the action. Scratch the surface of the characters and the sores of history weep. For Casimir, the only son and failed law student, now living in Hamburg with a potentially fictitious spouse, Helga, and drei kinder, Herbert, Hans and Heinrich, and working in a sausage factory, the house contains a range of memories, a few accurate, others fabrication and myth. Family heirlooms scattered around the house hold a variety of ‘real’ associations: the footstool is called G.K. Chesterton, because he fell off it impersonating Lloyd George; W.B. Yeats is represented by a cushion, and O’Connell by the chaise longue, to name but a few. Casimir remembers Yeats as being ‘tremendous’ and by his ‘cold, cold eyes’, yet he died before the former’s birth, a point not lost on the academic.
Eamon, the lad from the village whose grandmother worked for the family and who married one of the daughters, is cynical about the family’s past—‘tough, resilient, tenacious; and with one enormous talent for, no, a greed for, survival’—and yet nostalgic for the halcyon days of Ballybeg Hall. When the eldest, Judith, proposes that it be sold, he states that they should all try to maintain the house because of what it means to the locality—‘don’t you know all that is fawning and forelock-tugging and Paddy and shabby and greasy peasant in the Irish character finds a house like this irresistible’. The cast was exceptionally strong, with Peter McDonald superb as Eamon. There were also excellent performances from Gina McKee as Judith, and Dervla Kirwan as the alcoholic sister, Alice.
The plays are certainly different yet both contribute to the Irish historical experience. With Translations and his other celebrated works, such as Philadelphia Here I Come and Dancing at Lughnasa, Friel’s admirers hold him in the highest literary esteem, alongside O’Casey. He is certainly Ireland’s greatest living playwright, but I remain unconvinced that Translations is on a par with The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock or The Plough and the Stars. Perhaps time will tell.

Mark Coalter is a writer and researcher based in London.

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