For it’s so clear that in order to begin to live in the present we must first redeem the past, and that can only be done by suffering, by strenuous, uninterrupted labour.
In 1990, my parents took me to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin to see a new play by Brian Friel. That play was Dancing at Lughnasa, and that landmark production went on to take London, New York and Broadway by storm.
The play is undoubtedly a masterpiece, with Guardian critic Michael Billington recently including it in his 101 greatest plays of all time. I saw Dancing at Lughnasa again on Sunday in a 25th anniversary production presented by Lyric Theatre Belfast in association with the Lughnasa International Friel Festival. In the intervening 25 years, the play has lost none of its power, and this production, directed by Annabelle Comyn suggests that it still has something new to offer audiences today.
The setting of Dancing at Lughnasa is Ballybeg, literally a ‘small town’ in Donegal, where 7 year old Michael is living with his aunts and mother for one last summer. It is 1936, Michael’s Uncle Jack has returned from working as a missionary in Africa and events both local and international are about to converge on the delicate structure of their home and change all their lives forever.
The play is narrated by Michael (Charlie Bonner), now in his 30s and is effectively a memory play as Michael tries to make sense of the tumult of that last summer and what it meant for the lives of these five women and in turn, what it means for his own life.
Friel’s work often explores the tenuous links between fact and memory, questioning whether the events that we feel are central to our lives are as we remember them. From Gar in Philadelphia Here I Come! To Frank Hardy in Faith Healer, the mutability of memory is a constant theme. As Michael says
But there is one memory of that Lughnasa time that visits me most often; and what fascinates me about that memory is that is owes nothing to fact. In that memory atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory.
However, there is little rose-tinted sentimentality in Comyn’s production. The world of the Mundy sisters is rooted in domesticity and daily work. The smell of turf wafts over the auditorium. Soda bread is made on stage and ironing and laundry is done. The plight of unmarried women in 1930s Ireland is always to the fore and there is a strong sense that their lives are held together by the thinnest of threads, where three eggs must provide dinner for 8 people and the reputation of the entire family entirely rests on the behaviour of each individual. Earthy Maggie regularly jokes about where five men can be found for them all, but the banter hides a growing desperation with regard to the lives they are sliding towards.
All the aunts have their troubles: Maggie (beautifully played by Cara Kelly) is the joker and entertainer, ready with a riddle or a song when tensions get fraught, but realising that, unlike her old friend Bernie, her pleasures will remain small ones in comparison to a life of glamour and family. Rose (Mary Murray) may be slower than her sisters and the one they all worry about, but she yearns for a life outside the Mundy household like the rest of them and sees her opportunity in the form of married suitor Danny Bradley. Chris (Vanessa Emme), Michael’s mother, is still infatuated with his father, the charming but feckless Gerry Evans (Matt Tait), yet her infatuation is hopeful rather than believing. Agnes (Catherine Cusack, in the performance of the night) seems most at peace with her situation, but hides a passion of her own and as it turns out, an unforeseen courage.
Kate, the eldest sister (Catherine McCormack) is the strait-laced religious wage earner, desperate to maintain a veneer of respectability for the family, despite the presence of her ‘love-child’ nephew. Her brother’s return from the missions was supposed to be her saving grace, but the circumstances of his return are as cloudy as his malaria-ridden mind. She feels the responsibility for them all most keenly,
You work hard at your job, you try to keep the home together but suddenly you realise that cracks are formin’ everywhere. It’s all about to collapse.
It may be because this is the first time that Dancing at Lughnasa has been directed by a woman, but what struck me most about this production was the sense that these were five strong, brave and resilient women who did not conform to the society they found themselves in and suffered for it. They paradoxically wish to be accepted by their community while at the same time wishing to be away from it. Their decision to accept Chris and Michael as they are isolates them, but they are proud of that decision. The discussion about whether or not to go to the Harvest Dance shows just how quickly their hope can be quashed in the face of hostility from the community of Ballybeg. A desperation is palpable and it finds voice in the now famous scene where the sister dance together to the music from ‘Marconi’ the radio.
There is both joy and pain in this moment as their frenzied dance builds with a rising level of anxiety and panic. As Friel’s stage directions say
the movements seem caricatured; and the sound is too loud; and the beat is too fast; and the almost recognizable dance is made grotesque
The scene feels like an almost primal scream against their collective situation, their final pagan howl for lives that have slipped through their fingers. Words have become redundant to express what they themselves cannot fully express.
Dancing and ceremony loom large in this production and Liz Roche’s choreography is seamless and integral to the action. Kate’s attempts to stem the tide of secularism from her house cannot hope to succeed and the off-stage pagan rituals of the festival of Lughnasa seep through the cracks, infiltrating the home along with Uncle Jack’s tales of pagan ceremonies in Uganda.
Language is failing. Riddles can’t be solved and it becomes apparent that this is not just the end of a way of life for the Mundy’s but a way of life as a whole due to war, secularism and the coming industrial revolution.
And even though I was only a child of seven at the time I know I had a sense of unease, some awareness of a widening breach between what seemed to be and what was, of things changing too quickly before my eyes, of becoming what they ought not to be.
This Lyric production carefully harnesses Friel’s themes of memory, guilt and family but is a somewhat sombre affair. There are some accent issues, but it also includes some performances of quiet grace, particularly from Charlie Bonner as the omnipresent narrator, Declan Conlon as the confused but ultimately composed missionary and Catherine Cusack as the quiet, hard-working Agnes, whose fate unfolds with devestating dramatic irony where we must watch her yearn for a life we know she will never have.
Paul O’Mahoney’s set is both realistic and thematic, the typical working Irish kitchen over hung with gauze and mirrors, creating a sense of claustrophobia and containment. Scenes change with the flash of a bulb and the interference on the radio, capturing these moments as snapshots offered up to us by Michael. Yet these five women are always front and centre, with their strength and endurance forming the back bone of the play.
Twenty five years on, Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa still has something to tell us about how we remember and those we love.
When I remember it, I think of it as dancing. Dancing with eyes half closed because to open them would break the spell. Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement– as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes and those hushed rhythms and in those silent and hypnotic movements. Dancing as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary…