Director: Annabelle Comyn
Writer: Brian Friel
Reviewer: Kevin McCluskey
In Dancing at Lughnasa Michael Evans (Charlie Bonner) reflects back on his childhood, sharing with the events of one summer in 1936. Born out of wedlock, he is raised by his mother and her four sisters in Donegal. The play explores the upheavals in the lives of the Mundy sisters as Michael’s estranged father visits, industry threatens the livelihood of many women, and Father Jack Mundy (Declan Conlon) returns Uganda, having cast aside Catholicism in favour of tribal rituals. Jack’s preoccupations are mirrored by the celebration of the festival of Lughnasa in Donegal – the festival is simultaneously alluring and dangerous, existing on the periphery but hugely influential on the mood of the play, representing an Ireland communicating with its pagan heritage, with mentions of cattle dragged through fires to purge them of evil spirits.
Developing the concept of mirroring, Paul O’Mahony’s otherwise austere country kitchen set features a large reflective quadrangle at the back, looming over the sisters. In several instances a flashbulb sound effect coupled with a bright flash of light punctuates the scenes, suggesting that these moments have imprinted themselves on Michael to almost photographic accuracy. Crucially, however, looking up at the reflection the audience sees another perspective of the action, distorted and at a different angle, a perfect metaphor for the slippery qualities of memory. Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting design and Fergus O’Hare’s sound design work in tandem to further the idea of memory softened and distorted by the distance of time. The smell of burning peat in the auditorium almost poses a challenge to the audience – do we surrender to memories so strong that we can smell them, or do we observe from a distance, questioning all that we see on the stage?
The cast works together brilliantly. As Gerry Evans, Matt Tait invokes the presence of musical comedy stars from another era – dancing with the Mundy sisters to Cole Porter’s ‘Anything Goes’, he simultaneously charms both the sisters and the audience. While uplifting in the moment, these bursts of joy deepen the aching sense of impending tragedy. Liz Roche’s choreography of the famous group dance by the sisters is explosive. The energy builds, and as Kate Mundy (Catherine McCormack, who had previously played Christine in the 1998 film version) executes Irish dance steps the rest of the sisters show the need to surrender to music and to unleash their frustrations at life. As flour is thrown in the air and Christine (Vanessa Emme) dances in a priest’s surplice order and propriety is temporarily abandoned. The abrupt end of the dance and the evaporation of this subversive energy places borders around the sisters – they’re trapped in both Michael’s memory and in the restrictive Ireland of the 1930s.
Taking place at the same time as the Lughnasa International Friel Festival and Queen’s University’s Brian Friel Summer School, there is a sense that expectations for this production are high, coming twenty-five years after the premiere production at the Abbey Theatre. Though the temptation is there to present the piece as a bit of golden-hued nostalgia for simpler times, Annabelle Comyn delves into the text to present a darker vision. Time is taken to explore memory thoroughly – in a long monologue by Michael in the second act, the sisters perform housework in slow motion, making the drudgery of daily tasks into something beautiful. The effect of this moment is representative of the entire show – in taking Friel’s play and delving deep into the subtext, the production is transformative.
Photo courtesy of Lyric Theatre. Runs until September 27th