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Posts Tagged ‘Brian Friel’

Irish playwright Brian Friel wrote something like 30 plays and adaptations in 45 years from the early 60’s. A handful have been revived fairly regularly, becoming classics. This is the second London revival of the summer, following the highly successful Translations at the NT. Sadly this rather Chekhovian play, written just one year earlier in 1979, is a lot less successful.

Though the story is the same, this isn’t the play I remember seeing at Hampstead Theatre in 1988 or the NT in 2005, and I’m struggling to understand why. Here the Irish ‘big house’ is represented by a faded backdrop and a model around which the action takes place in a shallow pit, with actors waiting at the back until they take part. I found Es Devlin’s design and Lyndsey Turner’s staging a bit puzzling.

The family is gathered for youngest daughter Claire’s wedding to a much older man, who we never meet. Casimir has come from Hamburg where he now lives with his wife and two boys. Alice and her husband Eamon are over from London. Judith runs the home, looking after their father, Uncle George and Claire, though she’d clearly like to be somewhere else with Willie. American historian Tom is visiting as part of the research into his latest project.

Nothing much happens in the first two acts, which is my main problem with it. Claire plays Chopin, encouraged by Casimir, sexually ambiguous, who tells implausible stories. Eamon and Alice, who seems to be the subject of abuse, spar. Willie makes himself useful; fixing intercom speakers so they can hear father’s confused ramblings downstairs. By the interval, I was frankly rather bored.

They make up for it in the final act, where their father’s funeral has usurped the wedding, which is to be delayed for three months. They try and resolve what is to happen to the house, and to Uncle George. Eamon and Alice are to return to London, taking the uncle with them. Casimir is heading back to his family in Germany. Judith wants rid of the liability the house has become so that she can at last live her own life. In a fine cast, David Dawson shines as Casimir, banishing the memory of Niall Buggy and Andrew Scott, who played the role before him.

This time around, I found it dull, uneven and poorly paced, a bit like my bete noire Chekhov!

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I last saw this 1980 play by the late Brian Friel in Sam Mendes’ Donmar Warehouse Theatre production twenty-five years ago. Ian Rickson’s revival in the National’s Olivier Theatre makes a virtue of the bigger space and it works even better on this scale, with a superb design by Rae Smith, beautifully lit by Neil Austin, making great use of the Olivier stage (something that lately hasn’t been said that often!).

We’re in rural Ireland in 1833, in an independent and potentially illegal ‘Hedge School’, giving a classical education to adults in Latin and Irish. The school is run by Hugh and his son Manus. Hugh’s other son Owen is working as a translator for the British army, which is mapping this part of Ireland, renaming places in English. When British army Lieutenant Yolland and Manus’ girlfriend fall for each other, events take a dramatic turn. The disappearance of Yolland incurs the wrath of the British, who threaten to kill animals, evict people and demolish homes. The true purpose of the British forces mission becomes clear.

It all takes place in a school room, with a large green space behind and brooding clouds above providing an atmospheric and evocative picture of rural Ireland. It takes a while before you realise the Irish are speaking Irish (Gaelic) and the British speaking English; at this time English was rarely spoken by the people of Ireland. Ciaran Hinds is great as Hugh, with Seamus O’Hare as Manus and Colin Morgan as Owen both excellent. In a fine supporting cast, Dermot Crowley shines as the erudite, knowledgable but often drunk Jimmy Jack Cassie, who studies Greek and Latin.

This is an excellent revival of a fascinating play, anchored in history, beautifully staged and performed.

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Walking into the Donmar for this is another one of those WOW moments. Rob Howell’s extraordinary set of ‘distressed’ planks draws you in like never before into this already intimate space. It really is like peering into these people’s homes.

Though it’s the same play, it’s a very different experience to the Michael Rudman production I saw at the National 27 years ago. Then, a young Ralph Fiennes was Arkady and Robert Glenister was Bazarov, with Lesley Sharp as Fenichka. In addition to the smaller space, the success of this revival is due to masterly direction from Lyndsey Turner and one of the finest casts ever to grace this stage well used to fine casts.

Arkady returns from university in St. Petersburg a nihilist, with his friend and fellow nihilist Bazarov of whom he is in awe. Bazarov has great charisma and people can’t fail to be affected by him – Uncle Pavel and family retainer Prokofyich detest him, Dad Nikolai takes to him and maid Dunyasha swoons over him. When they move on to Bazarov’s home, his parents idolise him. Sadly, he’s unable to reciprocate any of these emotional responses. When he does let his guard down and profess his love for Anna, he is rebuffed and withdraws even further into himself. Though Arkady shares his philosophical beliefs, he’s nowhere near as cold and hard-hearted and the tragic conclusion leaves him devastated.

Playwright Brian Friel tells this story of familial love and friendship with a light touch and it’s lovely. It has great pace and there are no wasted moments. The ensemble is simply superb. I missed American Seth Numrich’s London debut last year, but I was hugely impressed by his performance here, with the earnestness, presence and passion required for Bazarov. It must be hard to play against this, but Joshua James does so with great emotionality and vulnerability. Anthony Calf is revelatory as the bumbling, hapless Nikolai and Tim McMullan is suitably pompous as Pavel. It’s hard to single out others, but it was great to see Karl Johnson and Susan Engel give such fine interpretations of Vassily and Princess Olga.

This is a brilliant and long overdue revival and another great night at the Donmar.

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I don’t read reviews before I go to see something (though you can’t help seeing star ratings and you do get a sense of the consensus – if there is one), but I so wish I had on this occasion. I would presumably have learnt that it doesn’t meet my criteria of ‘play’ and that I was unlikely to like it. I had seen it before c. 19 years ago at the Almeida (why are most revivals at present after 18-19 years? Is there a rule?) but I’ve seen so many Brian Friel plays, most are not monologues and I have such a poor memory.

In my book, monologues are not plays, they are monologues. Even though there are three actors, they don’t interact, so it’s still monologues. Staging them doesn’t make them plays and, in my view, adds little value. Unless they are on the radio (the most suitable medium), you’d just as well read them.

So it wasn’t long into the story of a woman blinded in infancy (here with a very irritating voice) that I realised I’d made a mistake, the mind started wandering and I started regular time checks. She sits on a swing, which sometimes moves, and climbs a tree. Her husband, the most animated, is a bit of a dreamer obsessed with the possibility of a cure. He sits on a box, though he does stand occasionally. The third character is her ophthalmologist. He sits in an armchair, though he also stands up now and again. They don’t acknowledge each other’s presence, let alone interact.

If you’re a literary sort or if you like having your stories told to you or if you like anything that’s stereotypically Irish, you’ll probably enjoy it. Not my cup of tea, I’m afraid.

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As an antidote to reviewing early performances, I find myself seeing this in the last week of its run. To be honest, despite the inclusion of three favourites in the cast (Sheridan Smith, Adrian Scarborough and Anne Reid) I couldn’t really get up the enthusiasm, but eventually felt it had to be done before it was too late!

Well its another case of first-half-dull-second-half-good; though I don’t recall that being the case with previous Hedda’s. Not enough happens in the 90 minutes to the interval, which for me is way too long for scene-setting, character development and plot set-up. Ill-matched couple Hedda and George return from their elongated honeymoon and she proves to be a bit of a control freak and a bit of a bitch. After the interval, it’s action packed as Hedda’s encouragement of Eilert’s suicide results in her own, presumably through guilt.

Les Brotherston’s design is a beautifully elegant 19th century Norwegian home, but a bit clumsy – with a glass room inhabiting the middle of the stage meaning a lot of unnecessary door opening and detours on foot (and challenging sight lines at the sides). Brian Friel’s translation and Anna Mackmin’s staging seem very conservative when compared with the Young Vic’s recent fresh take on A Doll’s House, though Sheridan Smith’s take on Hedda is different (a more manipulative ice queen) as is Adrian Scarborough’s George (a more lovable buffoon).

I did enjoy the (shorter) second half and admired all of the performances throughout. It’s particularly enjoyable to watch Sheridan Smith extend her range yet again; she really is proving to be one of our finest young actors. The length and dullness of the first half does prove fatal though, and I left feeling it was yet another revival rather than something special.

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I’ve always thought this early Brian Friel play was amongst his best and this terrific production by Lyndsey Turner at the Donmar Warehouse has added to this conviction. It’s all about the unsaid and the consequences of the unsaid and it’s both funny and desperately sad.

It takes a while to get into as Friel’s device of two actors playing the central character Gar develops its necessary rhythm, but it’s a brilliant idea. ‘Public Gar’ is the master of the unsaid and as a result he never gets the girl, never develops a relationship with his dad and escapes to the US. ‘Private Gar’ tells us what’s going on in his head and by seeing both we see the feelings hidden behind the facial expressions and body language.

Gar lives and works with his widowed dad and housekeeper Madge. His exchanges with the former are entirely without emotion and mostly about the stock in their hardware shop; the latter is a surrogate mum. His inability to say what he feels means he fails to press for the hand of girlfriend Kate. His friends are all bravado, boasting about what they are going to do but doing nothing. Going nowhere, he decides to emigrate and live with his childless aunt in Philadelphia and work in a big store. The play takes place the day before he departs, with the occasional flashback.

It’s surprising how much depth these characters have given we’re with them for less than two hours. Gar is beautifully played by Paul Reid and Rory Keenan, the latter with the challenge of a lot of speedy dialogue and movement. They are only identical in their clothing, but they really do feel like one character. Valerie Lilley captures Madge’s suppressed affection beautifully and James Holmes has to create dad with few words, but does so well.

Rob Howell’s set is a realistic shop and home, with a huge wall of shelves and lights to provide a more impressionistic setting for the more surreal other-worldliness of the play. Lyndsey Turner’s direction has a lightness and playfulness but it’s ultimately deeply moving. It’s hard not to shed a tear at the unfulfilled life that leads to Gar’s escape; I did so at the end.

This is a long overdue and beautifully executed revival and the first big hit in Josie Rourke’s reign at this lovely venue.

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