Aristocrats @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Dervla Kirwan
Gina McKee
Andrew Scott
Stephen Boxer
Marcella Plunkett
Brian Doherty
Peter McDonald
Sam Beazley
TP McKenna
Aislin McGuckin

on piano
Eleanor Alberga
Salom Van Der Walt

written by
Brian Friel

directed by
Tom Cairns

The National’s revival of Brian Friel’s distinctly Chekhovian play honours the realism of the text. Rather than a production full of grand sets and technical wizardry, it is one that focuses on the characters and the simple but important themes Friel hoped to convey.

As members of an aristocratic Irish family descend on Ballybeg Hall for young Claire’s wedding, the audience becomes aware both of the cracks within the foundations of the building and within the family; lost dreams are exposed and a past era of Irish decadence draws to a close.

TP McKenna takes on the role of the last of the ‘old’ aristocracy, a senile old judge and father of five children. Although very weak and kept off-stage, he still maintains a very ominous presence, as his rants are heard by way of a baby monitor.

From the start Claire’s wedding lacks the usual sense of joy and celebration, but what little there is, is quickly forgotten as death strikes Ballybeg Hall and the family are forced to consider their futures.

Friel’s play deals with very real people in very real, if peculiar, situations. It quickly becomes apparent that the children of this ancient line are lost in fantasy and fleets of fancy. Their lives seem to be damaged; they teeter on the fault line between their ancient ancestry and the pressures of modernism. A secret life in Hamburg, an obsession with Chopin, political radicalism, Catholic piety and alcohol – all forms of escapism for this decaying family.

As the youngest children, Andrew Scott, as Casimir, and Marcella Plunkett, as Claire, appear to be the most affected. The latter obsessed with playing Chopin and the former obsessed with hearing it; the music becomes an allusion to a past and unknown time, but is also an obvious reflection of the characters’ emotional and mental anguish. Both actors show a deep fervour and Scott’s performance is particularly uncomfortable – he depicts a man with a troubled mind with astonishing ease. They both become so enveloped by their characters’ eccentricities that the stage could be mistaken for an asylum.

As elder sister Judith, Gina McKee brings a genuine stoicism to the stage. Probably the most tragic character, she has sacrificed everything for her father and the sake of a family home and name. Friel has built a vivid past for her, with elements of political extremism, and although McKee plays her as more of a nurse than a rebel, the she conveys the character’s strengths with deep sincerity.

As the alcoholic Alice, Dervla Kirwan plays a desperately miserable woman, completely lost in life. Alice’s siblings have their passions, but she has only alcohol and Kirwan plays out her anxieties with painful contemplation.

Brian Doherty and Peter McDonald also excel as two outsiders absorbed into this eccentric household, but it is Stephen Boxer, as the American writer Tom Huffnung, who plays the more interesting foreigner. He has come to observe the family for his studies of Irish history but soon realises that the fantastic tales he has been told are mere fabrication. As a representation of Friel himself, it his role to commentate on the past, present and future Ireland.

The difference between Friel and Huffnung is that Friel is a native, capable of demonstrating an insightful and informative tableau of the decaying traditions, not just within Ireland, but in Britain as a whole. His play is tragic but not melodramatic, thematically stunning but not gratuitous. Tom Cairns’ production is a simple but amazingly effective interpretation of this.

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