The mark of an exceptional play is the fact it can be interpreted in many different ways and director Annabelle Comyn has thrown emphasis on the women in the cast and drawn out a tremendous standard of acting and a clever rhythm to the production.
Playwright Brian Friel has given each character a story to tell and they tell them well; five sisters and their brother living in a small Donegal village in 1936 during the Celtic harvest festival of Lughnasa. Times are hard but the girls between them have eked out a living, Kate is a school teacher and acts like one, keeping everyone in check yet every now and then returning to the joy of being one of five sisters who can let their black hair down and dance round the kitchen table. Maggie is the mother figure, she keeps house, bakes and exudes a fine sense of humour, a spontaneous woman with a deep affection for her girls and leads the wild dancing when Marconi, the beloved radio, choses to work! At one time she’s making bread when on comes a 1930’s dance tune, she throws the flour up into the air and takes off round the kitchen followed by her exuberant sisters. Agnes and Rose are a two-some who understand each other, Agnes the quiet one, Rose the simple one. And then there’s Christina. She fell for a fast talking gramophone sales man seven years before we meet her and her love child, Michael, plays by the side of the stage, the women relate to the boy but we never see him. Instead he appears as the narrator looking back at that last August they were all together, his memories of life in the cottage with his aunts yet as an adult he can also tell us what happened after that August time. He tells us of their hopes and fears, of his father Gerry Evans coming back from time to time, each time her son watches as she comes to life, sweet talked into loving him all over again. He promises marriage and a black bike for the boy but it never happens.
Then we’re introduced to Father Jack, the brother of the family, a priest who has just returned home after 25 years working in a leper colony in Uganda. Clearly he is unwell, his memory is effected by malaria but more important is the fact that he has forgone his Catholic beliefs in favour of native rituals and voodoo. In a small village words gets round, can his irreligious views be the reason the local priest has told Kate her post in the school will not be renewed, that Agnes and Rose will loose their wages knitting gloves and has the dead white cockerel anything to do with him?
There’s a feeling of fear and rejection between the Mundy sisters, what will they do, how will they survive? There are twists and turns in this story based on Friel’s own experiences and there isn’t a happy outcome.
It’s a compelling play. Brother Jack is fascinating, (superb Declan Conlon), Maggie, (Cara Kelly) is fulsome and brings colour to the grey and silver stage and Rose (Mary Murray) brings laughter with her direct point of view and the simplicity of her outlook, a worry to her sisters who feel she is being taken advantage of by a man in the village; we learn through Michael that eventually she dies in a hospice for the destitute in London 15 or so years later.
Designer Paul O’Mahony provides a notable set, stylised and away from the usual Donegal cottage clutter. Attention to detail is obvious. As the audience come into the auditorium, Michael is sitting at the table considering his life as a 7 year old and the story he has to tell us; there’s a smell of turf in the air and a barely perceptible hum of the countryside around us.
Altogether this is a superior production and most enjoyable.
by Anne Hailes
At Lyric Theatre, Belfast until 27 Sept.