The Home Place

Brian Friel's fissiparous new play fails to come together

Brian Friel has spent 50 years writing about divisions: between the public and private self; the geographical and the psychological; within families, cultures and classes. His latest work The Home Place attempts to address all of these themes, but the result is a play that suffers from a divided self.

Christopher Gore is an Anglo-Irish landlord living with his son and housekeeper in Ballybeg in 1878. Christopher (Ian McElhinney) is torn between ‘the home place in Kent’ and the ‘big house’ in Ireland, ‘the only home I’ve ever known’. 

The predicament of indigenous versus immigrant is rooted in Ireland’s history, and Friel successfully addressed the political and social implications of this in his masterpiece Translations. Perhaps it would have been best if he had left it at that.

As in Translations, the English colonisers are seen as responsible for encroaching on the Irish natives. In the former this was represented through the motif of map-making, and a similarly scientific image of anthropological study is used in The Home Place, with Christopher’s cousin Richard (Conleth Hill) setting out to document the size, shape and appearance of Gore’s tenants to decipher the definitive ‘Irish’ character.

The scientist’s approach is obviously patronising and demeaning, and his actions release the underlying threat of violence harboured by locals who threaten the lives of the landlord and his family. Stuart Graham plays the shady Con Doherty with skill, his easy charm making his calm intimidation of the Gores all the more menacing.

Miche Doherty deserves every laugh as Richard’s exuberant militaristic assistant Perkins. Hill is an excellent comic actor who reveals the scientist for all his xenophobic folly. 

However, Friel seems to think it necessary to reinforce the notion that national identity cannot be easily categorised. Why else would he include a troupe of stereotypical Oirish characters, complete with a loquacious alcoholic father who likes a pretty ditty and a ‘Bejaysus!’-proclaiming peasant boy? Hopefully Friel is being ironic here, but the inclusion of these clichéd traits undermines his message.

McElhinney convincingly presents a conflicted man caught between his heritage and his home, ‘in exile from that memory and this fact’. The veteran actor’s buoyancy is engaging, and his grief when rejected by housekeeper and love interest Margaret is enthralling, if uncomfortable, to witness. 

Kyle Riley plays son and love rival David Gore with enthusiasm, and the failure of the audience to warm to him is due to lack of character development rather than any fault of the actor.

Aislín McGuckin plays the housekeeper with appropriate reserve and Margaret’s isolation is poignantly felt. As an Irish woman working at the ‘big house’, she is already separated from her family and community. Both father and son are in love with her, and the rejection of either means she will have to leave the lodge, her adoptive home.

Ferdia Murphy’s set is the focus of the final scenes. Bare tree-trunks thrust far up into the flies, encircling the landlord’s lodge. Christopher Gore surveys his estate, noting that the many varieties of tree originated from all over the world. They can only put down strong roots if they have space to do so… Ok, ok, we get the ‘planting’ metaphor.

Lack of direction is a failing of the play. For once this is not down to the director, though Mick Gordon could have saved the production from itself by cutting the last ten minutes of Friel’s script, where metaphor and play are stretched to clobbering point. 

Gore leaves the stage then returns, shouting and sobbing. The by now familiar Frielian images and themes are rehashed once more. The trees too have been measured and catalogued. Gore is a ‘planter’ and like the trees must ‘rise up’. ‘Any tree that encroaches on their space has to go.’

A recording of a children’s choir singing ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’ plays, reminding us yet again of the push and pull of family, heritage, nationality. It’s all too much. Confusion reigns. The main message of the play, if there is one, is lost.

It is disappointing to see the potential for grandeur and gravitas, so well realised in masterpieces like Translations, Philadelphia Here I Come! and Dancing at Lughnasa, diluted by busyness and lack of clarity. It’s not only Christopher Gore but also The Home Place that is suffering from an identity crisis. 

Hilary Copeland

The Home Place plays at venues across Northern Ireland. Check out Culture Live! for full listings.