Dancing at Lughnasa

The Lyric's first production of Friel's layered masterwork is as rich and rewarding as theatre gets

'What are they? Devils? Ghosts?' says Aunt Maggie, inspecting the faces painted on a child’s homemade kite. They are in fact portraits of the boy’s aunts. But equally they are ghosts and this is very definitely a ghost story.

At the start of the play the boy, Michael, now full grown and our narrator, sits in silence at the kitchen table, while those same aunts drift in as memories behind him. For what are ghosts if not memories?

The back drop to the stage is a veiled mirror, a glass, darkly reflecting the action on stage through the prism of childhood memory. It is necessarily obscure, occluded, and 'owes nothing to fact'. This is a memory play that plays with memory and Michael a self-consciously unreliable narrator.

The setting of Brian Friel’s masterful Dancing at Lughnasa is Ballybeg, literally a 'small town' in Donegal, and finds Michael living with his aunts and mother for one last summer. It is 1936 and events both local and international will conspire to shatter the delicate eco-system of their home lives forever.

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All of the aunts have their personal tragedies: earthy Maggie (Cara Kelly, brilliant) who glues the family together with her good humour and emotional intelligence, has to sit through sister Kate’s blithe story of her erstwhile best friend Bernie, who now has every advantage of the modern world: beautiful twins, a perfect figure, expensive clothes and her Swedish husband, where Maggie’s own pleasures extend to little more than an occasional wild woodbine.

There’s Chris (Vanessa Emme), the youngest of the Mundy girls and Michael’s mother, still infatuated with Gerry Evans, his father, who is the incarnation of misrule, with his freewheeling existence as a gramophone salesman and dance instructor, in stark relief to the narrowness and rigidity of the sister’s lives.

Agnes too (Catherine Cusack) hides a passion for the reckless Welsh interloper, something he exploits almost instinctively. Rose (Mary Mundy), though slower than the rest, is no less desperate for a wider world, manifested in the person of Danny Bradley, the married man who calls her his 'Rosebud' and whom she prefers even to chocolate biscuits.

Finally there’s Kate (Catherine McCormack) the oldest sister and the only one with a wage – she is a school teacher known as 'The Gander'. Kate is the schoolmarm even at home, brittle and stiff-backed and given to sarcasm and humiliations to enforce her position.

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The narrowness, the fear of disgrace and gossip, are all contained in the person of Kate, a woman corseted by decency and the fear of what might escape. What does escape is a creeping Paganism. By the end of the play she is beset by it: the atavistic practices in the backhills, the sacrifice of the white rooster, Michael’s painted kites, too heavy to fly in the windless summer, that function perfectly as fetish masks.

Then there is the transformed figure of Father Jack, her brother, the heroic leper priest returned as a malarial zombie. He is unable to remember his sister’s names and full of peculiar new spiritual ideas.

He was to be Kate’s trump card, her own St. Damien, returned in triumph from Africa. There was to be a parade and more importantly he would say Mass. He was her guarantor of respectability and decency.

When she slowly rebuilds his health with a regimen of exercise and tedium, it is her turn not to recognise him – as his language returns he is full of strange new gods and peculiar rites. She realises that she has clutched a viper to her chest: the family are ruined, the Parish priest will never visit and they are lost.

This is a fantastic production. Though the early scenes trundle along a little slowly, there is much made of the mundanity of the women’s lives, director Annabelle Comyn picks up the pace by the time we get to Maggie’s famous whoop.

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The radio blasts and the cast explode into a high-kicking frenzy. Even straight-backed Kate, last from her seat, throws a few stiff shapes. There is energy buzzing from the stage and, during the second half, it never lets up.

There is a stylish choreography here; this is the real dancing, as the cast move smoothly around each other, a tableau vivant, on a stage dressed with a picnic cloth and a dead bird.

Though the crowd are easily pleased – calling the wireless 'Marconi' gets a laugh  they have every reason to be pleased. This is a layer-cake of a play, showing more the more time you spend with it.

If it is true that theatre is never the same two nights running I think that it is truer still here: this play presents more with successive viewings, it reveals itself, offering itself like a sacrifice at Lughnasa. If the stage is often literally set with smoke and mirrors, the obfuscating haze of memory, this play generously reveals its truths over time spent with it.

Dancing at Lughnasa continues at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until September 27. For more information and booking visit www.lyrictheatre.co.uk.