by Brian Friel
Abbey Theatre, Dublin
When The Aristocrats was first produced at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1979, Charlie Haughey became Taoiseach and Margaret Thatcher was elected British Prime Minister. Away from the ballot box, the Loyalist Shankill Butchers were convicted for their gruesome attacks on Catholics. 20 miles away from the Bogside – cocooned in their formerly grand ancestral home – the O’Donnell clan are undergoing a seismic change to parallel Anglo-Irish politics of the time. The play’s focus is on the most political of units – the family – who gather for the wedding of one of three daughters: Alice, a disconnected alcoholic, Judith, a dutiful carer to their tyrannical father and bride-to-be Claire. Only son Casimir is child-like, prone to vocal tics and “would have been regarded as the village idiot” had he be born in Ballybeg village. He is saved, declares his father, because his nuclear, dysfunctional family “can absorb” him.
The O’Donnell patriarch’s voice booms omnisciently around the home via an intercom. Bedridden and out of sight, he still thwarts his children’s aspirations, as Claire plays Chopin off-stage. An American biographer of Irish Catholic aristocracy arrives, who initially believes all he is told about the house’s association with Yeats, O’Casey and John McCormack. One sceptic is Eamon (played superbly with humour, swagger and pathos by Keith McErlean), a local man who fell for one sister (Judith) but married another (Alice). Francis O’Connor’s set design piles books and objects to tangibly link the family to Ireland’s cultural heroes. Casimir’s mythologising of the house’s history contrasts with the reality each character faces with the death of their father. On the croquet lane outside, the game being played is as imaginary as family’s achievements. Patrick Mason’s assured direction of a strong cast brings the humanity of Friel’s story to the fore. Tadhg Murphy is hyperactive and tender as Casimir, Rebecca O’Mara registers Alice’s complexities with skill, while we see too little of Cathy Belton’s brilliant Judith. Catherine Fay’s costume design is well selected and understated, as a family tries to cast off the totemic big house.
In the programme, UCD’s Christopher Murray says: “the political situation in the North made importunate claims on Friel as a writer”. Audiences cannot resist imposing contemporary meaning onto theatre of the past. If Friel’s Aristocrats says anything about modern Ireland, it’s not necessarily about crumbling structures (architectural or societal); it’s about the endurance of family and the multiplicity of our histories.
This review was originally published in The Irish Times on June 25th, 2014