Brian Friel at Edinburgh
Peter Geoghegan enjoys two moments of magic from the playwright's extensive back catalogue
Brian Friel turned 80 this year and, as part of its tribute to the playwright, Dublin's Gate Theatre reprised three works from his back catalogue: Faith Healer, Afterplay and The Yalta Game at Edinburgh's King's Theatre as part of the recent International Festival.
Anton Chekhov has provided inspiration and source material for many of Friel’s greatest theatrical triumphs. In Afterplay, the Irishman performs an impressive feat of theatrical alchemy, recovering characters from his two most famous Chekhov adaptations to create a work that is as novel and inventive as it is poignant and touching.
A dilapidated Moscow cafe is the scene of a chance encounter between a strong willed, prickly middle-aged woman - lovesick Sonya Serebriakova from Uncle Vanya - and a bumbling fantasist, Andrey Prozorov, spendthrift brother of the infamous Three Sisters.
With subtlety and verve, Niall Buggy and Frances Barber bring to life two souls haunted by pasts they can neither reconcile with, nor move on from. The financial legacy of her uncle’s hubris weighs heavily on Sonya’s shoulders, while Andrey pines visibly for a wife who has long since abandoned him.
Over the course of an hour and several large vodkas, each character’s sad collection of ‘fables’, ‘fictions’, ‘untruths’ and ‘lies’ unravel slowly and painfully. Andrey, it turns out, is not starring in La Boheme - he busks on the street so he can visit his jailbird son. And Sonya is hopelessly in love with her uncle’s drunken, married doctor.
Friel shows us individuals lost in their own imaginary worlds, waiting expectantly for the realisation of a hope that will almost certainly go unfulfilled. This fact Sonya accepts readily, if melancholically: ‘It is not the most satisfactory way to get through a life, but it is away.'
Garry Hynes’s unfussy direction complements Friel’s exquisite writing by drawing out its emotional depth without suppressing its lighter moments. Such intricate intermingling of light and shade, fantasy and reality, marks Afterplay out as so much more than a clever theatrical conceit well executed.
The Russian master would surely have approved.
The Yalta Game also owes a heavy debt to Chekhov, this time his short story Lady with Lapdog. The play - which debutted in Dublin in 2001 - takes its name from a novel game of seduction pursued by charismatic Muscovite Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov along the Crimean resort’s bustling promenades. With a love interest in tow, Dmitri gazes at wandering holiday makers and invents spurious, often titillating back stories for them.
During one such ‘daylong diversion’, Dmitri befriends Anna Sergeyevna, an innocent young woman from near St Petersburg on a sabbatical from her older, domineering husband. In the unreal world of Yalta’s casinos and ferries, their flirtation quickly develops into a full-blown holiday romance.
But when Anna’s ailing spouse calls her home, the relationship with Dmitri is over. Or is it?
Faced with the mundane reality of their married lives, both characters slip into a world of imagination, a world where they are together forever in a perfect (and impossible) union. Lost in his fantasies, the once cocksure Dmitri is driven by love - or more accurately longing - to doubt everything in his life: ‘‘things that once seemed real now become imagined things."
Over 50 finely-crafted minutes, Friel reveals the depressing emptiness that leads Anna and Dmitri into a long-distance affair that both know is doomed but neither can end. It all flows elegantly, aided by Patrick Mason’s simple production and Liz Ascroft’s spartan set - a handful of bare wooden chairs sit scattered across the stage.
Both players are excellent: Ristéard Cooper’s Dmitri is animated, loquacious and confident, Rebecca O’Mara’s Anna the perfect mix of vulnerable beauty and coldhearted duplicity.
The Yalta Game is a short play, and the razor-sharp exchanges between the couple are delivered almost without skipping a breath. This reviewer would have preferred more time to savour the dialogue’s cut and thrust. But then time is the one thing star-crossed lovers never have to spare.