Dancing at Lughnasa

David Lewis gives his verdict on Gerard McSorley's triumphant return to the Lyric

If you are ever tempted to think that life was better in the old days go and see Dancing at Lughnasa to dispel the fantasy. Life for the ‘ordinary’ woman was a drudge – an endless round of cleaning, cooking, laundry, more cleaning, more cooking, more laundry. With little opportunity to earn money of their own, women were imprisoned in the home, frustrated, stultified, their talents wasted.

It’s 1936 and harvest time in Ballybeg. Christianity may be the religion of the moment but old Donegal traditions die hard. Never mind Jesus and Mary, the locals are getting high on hooch and setting fires in the back hills to the god Lugh in celebration of the pagan Festival of Lughnasa.

Pre-publicity for the Lyric’s production of  Brian Friel’s classic was dominated by the appearance of screen star Gerard McSorley as Father Jack, a returning priest from Africa who has gone a little too native for his superiors’ liking.

McSorley gives a quietly effective performance but it is his nieces, the Mundy sisters,  who are the pulsating heart of the play. The casting is spot on – as a close-knit family living in each others’ apron pockets, with all the friction, love, tears and petty jealousies that entails, the five actresses are entirely believable.

If the moments of stillness in the play sometimes seem a little forced perhaps it’s only because when moving the cast are so wonderfully energetic. Director Mick Gordon gives them space to breath and girl do they use it. The highlight comes when the incorrigible Maggie, riddler and smoker of ‘wonderful wild woodbines’, begins to dance. One by one the sisters join in, becoming whirling dervishes and tearing the house apart.

Even disapproving Kate, the eldest sister and schoolteacher, can’t help getting caught up in the frenzy – her earlier statement that dancing is ‘for young people with no duties and no responsibilities and nothing in their heads but pleasure’ now null and void. To single out a Mundy sister for praise would be invidious – all give terrific performances.

Also effervescent is Rhydian Jones as Gerry Evans, the father of Chris’s ‘lovechild’ Michael and a carefree philanderer. Near impossible to dislike, only Kate fails to fall for Gerry’s optimistic charms. If it’s difficult to see him going off to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, he explains: ‘Maybe that’s the important thing for a man: a named destination – democracy, Ballybeg, heaven. Women’s illusions aren’t so easily satisfied…’

Ferdia Murphy’s set successfully evokes the Irish country kitchen of the 1930s, with turf-burning range, cold press and knick-knacked dresser. The Marconi wireless is central to the Mundys’ lives – a source of stimulation and escape. The frustration of life indoors is contrasted well with the freedom of outdoors and the garden, with its spreading sycamore tree, simple seat and grass so green it hurts the eyes.

Friel manages to deal with big themes such as the strait-jacketing effect of poverty, organised religion and social mores, without preaching. Ireland’s old tragedy of emmigration also looms large, with plenty of folks leaving never to be seen by their loved-ones again.

Losses like these are brought home in the final scene, when the narrator Michael’s tale-telling finally comes alive. As he speaks of the summer of 1936, the cast swaying imperceptibly behind him to ‘It is Time to Say Goodnight’ on the wireless, we realise that his aunts, Father Jack, his mother and father, are all dead, living on only in his memory.

All of us have ‘danced’ with extraordinary people like these, people who lived ordinary lives with great bravery and dignity. They now exist only in our memories, which as Friel concludes correctly are ‘simultaneously actual and illusory’. The power of his play is to bring the dead alive once more.