Dancing at Lughnasa @ Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Birmingham

directed by
Tamara Harvey
When a play has been produced as often, and as successfully, as Brian Friel’s Dancing at the Lughnasa it must be tempting for a director to go in for a clever reworking, to make the piece their own, but it can be just as bold a decision to remain close to the spirit of the original.

From the first sight of designer Colin Richmond’s crooked Donegal cottage, complete with its soggy peat and billowing smoke stack, it is clear that this faithful version will be a magical two hours of theatre.
In fact the word ‘magic’ is an apt one, considering the play’s theme of the taboo of Paganism in a fervently Christian society.

The play’s title refers to a traditional Irish animist festival that involved wild sacrificial bonfires, dancing and bloodletting for the god of the harvest. In the 1930s the practice was still popular, and in the backwater of Donegal, in the hills behind the Christian Mundy sisters’ cottage, the celebrations are rife. Though we never witness any of the festivals pagan rites, we hear about them through the sisters.

Despite the Mundy women being unmarried, and the only men in the house being their estranged elder brother, Father Jack, and Christines illegitimate child, Michael, all four of them have gained the respect of the community in their home of Ballybeg through clean living and Christian worship.

This is due, in part, to the most religiously fervent sister, Kate, who attempts to keep the household in order, despite Father Jacks tales of paganism from his time in a mission in Uganda, the return of Michaels drifter father and the frustrations of Agnes and Rose, two disillusioned spinsters at odds with their constrictive society.

Freedom is not widely available in Ballybeg and it is something the sisters only rarely grasp, when dancing to their their wireless radio set, Mchoney, or when they reminisce on their early days, when they could do as they pleased without the watchful eyes of Ballybeg casting aspersions upon their character.

One crucial monologue delivered at the end of the first act by Christines son Michael, who is played as an adult looking back on his childhood, describes the future these women have waiting for them, lacing the second half with just the right amount of melancholy. The isolating spotlight on Barry Ward as he delivers Michaels lament does justice to the clever dramatic technique and director Tamara Harvey places the emphasis on these key scenes to enrich the plays strong characters and gentle tone.

The audience really become more than just spectators and as ‘Mchoney’ pours out thirties dancehall music during the intermission the bubble around the play is never pierced, adding to the sense of authenticity of the whole piece.

The cast are warm and engaging. Led by Siobhan McSweeney, whose zesty Maggie has an honest nature and a quick wit. Her scenes with Michael (who is represented by Wards older self) could seem trite and forced in a less adept actor’s hands, but she manages to keep the audience intrigued in her conversations with a child that isnt actually there.

The love-stricken Christine, who is played by a glowing Claire Rafferty, sparkles when on stage with Daniel Hawsford, who plays Michaels father, and the two produce some of the production’s most genuinely charming moments.

Rose is probably the most interesting, yet disturbing, character in the whole piece. Mentally hindered, although older than Christine she is treated as the baby of the family. Added to this, the hen-pecking from her older sister Kate has made her rebellious and slightly bitter, something that Fiona OShaughnessy, with her strained rasping voice brings to the mercurial quality of Rose.

She is one of society’s victims, literally when it is assumed she has been raped by the married Danny Bradley whom she has declared her love for. However this is far from a brutal scene and is handled very sensitively. The drama is created by her sisters’ desperate search for her and, on her return from the hills, she simply drops to her knees and smothers herself with the crimson stain of freshly picked berries and the shame of straying.

The production runs so smoothly that it often feels as though no one is at the reins; with no set changes and the principal action revolving around four characters in one room, Harvey has done a superb job in maintaining this illusion. A lesser director might have found difficulty in maintaining the audience’s attention, but Harvey keeps the piece moving along beautifully.

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