The Lyric Dances at Lughnasa

Ireland's inaugural Brian Friel Festival brings the dramatist's finest play to Belfast later this month, 25 years after its triumphant premiere in Dublin

Scarcely has the ink dried under the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival than its director, the indefatigable Sean Doran, is at it again. When it comes to feting literary and theatrical genius, Doran’s ambition and vision know no bounds.

T.S. Eliot and Racine were the writers-in-focus at this year’s Beckett festival; the May Bank Holiday saw the arrival of the first Wilde Weekend, a four-day celebration of the life and work of Oscar Wilde. And now he stands poised to unveil what is envisaged as Ireland’s first annual cross-border arts festival, dedicated to the artistic brilliance of Brian Friel.

The great man himself is fully behind the event and offers an amusing insight into what audiences should – and should not – expect.

'If you want a festival that is tame and conventional and mildly entertaining, don’t ask Sean Doran to organise it,' says Friel. 'Witness his Beckett Festival in Enniskillen it is wild and imaginative and creative and riveting. I have total confidence he’ll do the same with this festival.' 

The Lughnasa International Friel Festival will run from August 20 to 31, with the first week’s events taking place in Donegal, Friel’s own home place, and moving to Belfast for the second week. In the way that imaginative, unexpected venues form an integral part of Happy Days, so too have the landscape, architecture and culture of town and country played a vital part in Doran's programming plan this time around. Audiences are invited to journey through the wild scenery of Donegal, following the trail of a number of Friel’s plays, which will be presented as professional rehearsed readings.

The Enemy Within will be read by Kabosh Theatre and directed by Paula McFetridge in the little church of St. Colmcille in Glencolmcille, the perfect setting for Friel’s imagining of the life and self-imposed exile of St. Columba. A trip across choppy waters to an island off West Donegal will culminate in a reading of The Gentle Island, directed by David Grant, a former artistic director of the Lyric Theatre. Magilligan Point and Greencastle will be the venues for Lovers, Friel's bittersweet, double-sided tale of young love. And a special reading of Faith Healer will transport audiences across West Donegal, echoing the peripatetic life of faith healer Frank Hardy.

In Belfast, the Mundy Concerts will feature the assorted talents of three outstanding, internationally renowned female performers, pianists Katya Apekisheva and Leonora Armellini, and mezzo soprano Ruby Philogene, all of whom will perform work with strong connections to Friel. And, once out of Donegal, the moving experience of Faith Healer will set out from the Duncairn Centre in north Belfast in the company of a terrific cast comprised of Denis Conway in the title role, Conleth Hill as his manager Teddy and Eleanor Methven as his long-suffering wife Grace.

The cornerstone of the festival is an eagerly anticipated new Lyric production of what is widely regarded as Friel’s finest play. As a young schoolteacher, who had just published his first book a collection of short stories Friel was reported in a newspaper interview to have said that his ambition now was to write ‘the great Irish play.’ In 1990, almost forty years and many memorable pieces later, he achieved that ambition with this ground-breaking memory play in which movement takes precedence over language and words themselves have been rendered all but redundant.

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Its very title is inspired: Dancing at Lughnasa. The two crucial words find equal resonance - dance as a visceral experience; dance as a wordless outpouring of suppressed passion and yearning; dance (as Guardian critic Lyn Gardner put it) as a vertical expression of a horizontal activity. Then Lughnasa, a beautiful, musical word filled with mystery, a word that rolls around the tongue, summoning images of pagan rites and rituals frowned upon in the repressive society of the mid 1930s, when the play is set.

Friel chose his historical context with care, with knowing irony and dramatic awareness. His characters struggle for survival in an Ireland which, a few years later, would be elevated to almost ludicrous idealism by Eamon de Valera in his St. Patrick’s Day 1943 radio address.

In the so-called ‘dream’ speech he talked of a people who '... valued material wealth only as a basis for right living … whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.'

By the time the play was completed, the country had changed beyond recognition. At its opening in 1990, another new chapter in Irish history was beginning with the election of President Mary Robinson, the country’s first female head of state, who came to power with heartening promises of inclusivity, reconciliation and change.

After triumphant premieres of Translations and The Communication Cord by Field Day, the Derry-based company Friel founded in 1980 with actor Stephen Rea, he controversially chose to give this play to Dublin's Abbey Theatre. It was a decision which Field Day found hard to live with. But the public could not have cared less who was the producer.

Joe Vanek’s evocative set was the first indication of pleasures in store. In collaboration with director Patrick Mason, Vanek filled the Abbey’s main stage with an abundance of lush growth, a vast, fecund cornfield illuminated with scarlet poppies. It provided a powerful metaphor for the pagan feast of Lugh, the Celtic god of fertility, amidst whose celebrations Friel’s snapshot of family life in rural Donegal emerges.

Dancing at Lughnasa Abbey

As the narrator Michael, played by Omagh actor Gerard McSorley, completed his reflection on this seminal period in his life, those present were in no doubt that they had been in the thrall of something special. The audience is navigated gently to the finish line and into the very heart of this remarkable play: 'When I remember it, I think of it as if language had surrendered to movement as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness.

'Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes and those hushed rhythms and in those silent and hypnotic movements.' Few who were present at the 1990 opening night in the Abbey will forget the thrill of that totally unexpected, exhilarating moment when the crackly radio in the Mundy kitchen is cranked up to its highest volume and the five women throw up their arms, raise their skirts and dance from the depths of their souls, as though their very lives depended on it.

The family of women who drive the story is inspired by Friel's mother and her sisters and named after them. The writer once referred to them as ’those five brave Glenties women’, who grew up on the bleak west-facing coast of Donegal.

The story unfolds over a golden childhood summer in 1936 and is narrated, in retrospect, by Michael, the now-adult son of the youngest Mundy sister Chris. During these these heady, late summer days, love seemed a brief possibility for three of the sisters, but hopes fade and dreams are shattered in the cruelest of ways.

The outside world enters their enclosed order both through the effects of economic turmoil and the unexpected arrival of their elder brother, who has been a missionary priest in Africa for many years. And, meanwhile, up in the dark reaches of the back hills, surges the forbidden pull of the celebrations of the harvest festival of Lughnasa, when what has been sown will be reaped to devastating effect.

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A long time follower of Friel’s work the Lyric’s executive producer Jimmy Fay saw Mason’s revival of the production at the Abbey in 2000 and recalls the lasting impression it made on him.

'This play is living proof of Friel as a radical, interesting, innovative playwright,' he says. 'Because of his fine work on Chekov’s plays and subsequent comparisons with Chekov, it is easy to think of him as a traditionalist. But he is far from that. From the clarity of Translations to the innovation of Philadelphia Here I Come! he is nothing less than remarkable. An Enemy Within is an audacious play, Making History is a fine piece of work and here in Lughnasa you find magic, music, dance, memory, history … all in a single play.

'I did my first professional Friel gig as assistant director on an Abbey production of Translations but my very first involvement with him was at school, when I played SB O’Donnell in Philadelphia. As young lads growing up in Tallagh in the late 80s, we were really into the emigration theme of the play, the whole Tallafornia thing!'

Fay says that this production has been on the cards for some time and it is a big thrill for the theatre to see it finally taking shape.

'When I got this job, Adrian Dunbar approached me about doing it for the Friel Festival,' he says. 'The Lyric has been creatively and financially responsible for this new production. It has been a really interesting journey and Friel has been very much beside us, making really insightful contributions, by fax, from his home in Donegal.'

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The production will be directed by Dublin director Annabelle Comyn, whom Fay regards highly. She has gathered an excellent cast from both sides of the Irish Sea, only one of whom - Donegal man Charlie Bonner - has previously appeared in the play.

Her casting decisions have caused a little storm of public dissent within the Northern Ireland acting community, some of whom felt that they had been excluded from the opportunity to try out for roles in this much-loved play. Others have been supportive of the Lyric, underlining the opportunities it gives to local talent and insisting that casting should never be done on the basis of a postal code.

'At the end of the day, as a director myself, I will back the director and her vision to the hilt,' says Fay. 'My heart is very much in Belfast and I have been very focused since I came here in giving work to local actors and creatives.

'In the months ahead, we are going to be working with Tinderbox, Bruiser and Cahoots and have recently welcomed in companies like Brass Neck and Blunt Fringe. I am delighted with the cast that we have got and have been heartened by the support we have had from our audiences, who have been pre-booking in unprecedented numbers.

'It feels very fresh and exciting to be doing this play now. Ireland is again a very different country. It has moved on so much since the setting of the play and from the time of its premiere. The recent gay marriage vote was a symbol of seismic change. Whoever would have thought it? The North needs to come on board now. The country has gone through a humungous process of self-examination, which of course is one of the themes of the play.

'And think of two of the sisters, Agnes and Rose, heading off to England when their work as glove knitters dries up. It is a journey which we know will end in tragedy and homelessness, mirroring the plight of those migrants crossing the Mediterranean to find a life better than the one they are leaving. The play is alive and kicking. It’s anything but a museum piece.'

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Next on the Lyric’s producing agenda is Conor McPherson's The Night Alive, directed by the writer, with a cast which includes Enniskillen actor Adrian Dunbar. It is a co-production with the Dublin Theatre Festival and will open the 2015 Belfast Festival.

'I’m very excited at the prospect of producing these two major Irish playwrights back to back,' says Fay. 'Friel is the country’s greatest playwright; Conor McPherson is the most successful dramatist of his generation. There’s a nice symmetry to it.' 

Dancing at Lughnasa runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from August 26 to September 27 after transferring from the An Grianán in Letterkenny from August 20 to 23.