Brian Friel’s award-winning 1990 memoir, Brian Friel’s 1990 memoir, where the lives of five unmarried sisters in the County Donegal countryside reflect the changing world in 1936, rises with affection and regret. It has been given a lovingly detailed revival here at the National – where the original production was transferred from Dublin Abbey. Theater – directed by Josie Rourke, with a great ensemble cast including Justine Mitchell, Siobhán McSweeney from Derry for Girls and amazing newcomer Alison Oliver.
In fact, 30 years on, the script’s juxtaposition of pagan freedom and severe oppression in Ireland and around the world feels a bit overdone. Although Robert Jones’ costumes are impressive, his elaborate sets do not helplessly bring to mind The Wizard of Oz. On the contrary, this is a powerful representation of time, place and atmosphere.
Partly autobiographical, it is presented as the grown-up memory of Michael, the son of the youngest of the Mundy sisters, Chris (Oliver), and his charming but flawless and largely absent Welsh lover, Gerry. Aged seven when the story unfolds, played a touch disarmingly far from the main action by grown-up Tom Vaughan-Lawler, Michael is bewitched by Chris and his eccentric aunt Maggie (McSweeney). .
Family life for the Mundys is close, sometimes abrasive, and precarious. The turf-heated cottage is held together by the nagging organizational instinct, and income, schoolmarm eldest sister Kate (Mitchell), with a little extra from the gloves knitted by Agnes, a serious underwriting character, and Rose, who has learning. disability. The family’s giant radio, a symbol of the future, keeps conking out.
Shame brings shame to the family as well as poverty. Along with Michael, born “out of wedlock”, the sisters are caring for their missionary brother Jack (Father Ted’s unrecognizable Ardón O’Hanlon), who contracted malaria and “went from native” in Uganda. Although O’Hanlon sells them well, Jack’s impassioned speeches about sacrifices and dancing lepers are very rare today. Ditto Gerry’s decision, much to Tom Riley’s dismay, to join the International Brigades fighting in the Spanish Civil War.
Mainly the play works superbly on several levels. The sisters start out with some hope, but faith, mistrust, history and progress get in the way. The joyous abandon they bring to the graduation dances during the pagan harvest festival of Lughnasa was swept away, like many others after 1936.
Even if you lost all of the subtext, this show would still delight with its poignant portrayal of family dynamics. Kate Mitchell’s anxious exaggeration, knowing that she must be trying to keep things together; Maggie bluff, puffing McSweeney easing tension; the way Oliver’s expressive Chris lights up when Gerry appears, to the mixed jealousy and despair of her brothers.
Rourke deserves a compliment, but I’m sure she would defer the compliment. This play won the Evening Standard Friel Award for best play in 1991, and it still looks richly deserved.
National Theatreto 27 May; nationaltheatre.org.uk