Writer: Brian Friel
Director: Patrick Mason
Reviewer: Ciara Murphy
Far from functional, the O’Donnell family reunite in Ballybeg to celebrate their youngest sister, Claire’s (Jane McGrath) wedding. Arriving back in O’Donnell Hall after such a long time apart from it, and each other, opens up many old wounds and creates new frictions within the family structure. A researcher Tom Hoffnung, played by Philip Judge, is also resident, spending his days collecting information about the O’Donnell family and their wide influence on the village. Hoffnung receives much more than friendly anecdotes as familial rifts, the promise of a wedding, and a funeral unfurl. The eerie presence of the O’Donnell patriarch, played by John Kavanagh, haunts the house with his deranged shouts resonating from a speaker downstairs.
The onstage relationship between the siblings is very believable and these intimate relationships benefit from excellent scripting and good direction. Mason illuminates the nuances of each individual character, allowing the audience to engage and empathise with all of them. The only male sibling, Casimir, played by Tadhg Murphy, delivers a stellar performance that is both unwavering in it’s sincerity but also a perfect binary of comedy and tragedy.
The childlike innocence of the bride to be Claire and her more obtrusive sisters draws the audience’s attention to her personal character story. One of the primary focuses of the play however is the relationship between Judith, played by Cathy Belton, (the pseudo-matriarch in the absence of her mother) and the rest of her siblings. Permanent caregiver to her ailing father and a solid representation of home for her siblings, her own personal story hints at an Ireland that hasn’t moved on from its religious and social prejudices. It is clear that the O’Donnells have suffered the damage of their privileged upbringing, as they are each haunted by their own personal demons.
The set is impressive, with design by Francis O’ Connor, the contrast between luxury and accelerating dilapidation hints at the downfall of an entire class of Irish. The sound and lighting design (Denis Clohessy and Sinéad McKenna) are mostly a success but the representations of the Northern Ireland riots of the time are problematic. Although excerpts are heard coming through the set at scene breaks it is unnecessary, and for any audience members lacking the historical knowledge, quite confusing. Highlighted in the programme as representing a period of huge religious and political change in Ireland, Mason’s representation of this within the performance jars with Friel’s script.
Aristocrats entertains and thus succeeds, the O’Donnells echo the voices of their pasts leaving the audience with more questions than answers and a burning need to know more.
Photo courtesy of The Abbey Theatre. Runs until August 2nd.