Paul T Davies reviews Lyndsey Turner’s production of Brian Friel’s play Aristocrats at the Donmar Warehouse.
10 August 2018
This is the fourth Brian Friel play that Lyndsey Turner has directed at the Donmar, and that beautiful alchemy she has with the writer, and also with designer Es Devlin, has created another gorgeous, fragile, beautifully acted production. The O’Donnell family gather in the crumbling and decaying family home, the Big House that overlooks Ballybeg. Once grand, and the centre of society, the decaying house welcomes the three sisters and one brother who come together for younger sister Claire’s wedding. Instead, following his sudden death, they attend their father’s funeral, a man who still dominates with his standards and his rage. On stage is a dolls house, and immediately I thought of Bob Crowley’s design for The Young Vic’s The Inheritance, which also has a house at the heart of its story. The stage directions are read out in voice over at the start of each act, locating each character in the play, and the set is minimalistic. This is a production that eschews naturalism in its design, but embraces it in the acting.
And what a sublime cast. David Dawson is simply outstanding as fragile fantasist Casmir, whose memories of the house are tall tales of the famous crossing paths with his ancestors, his escape from reality obvious in his nervous chatter and false smile. He is a victim of his father’s bullying, whose voice heard over the tannoy that has been set up to “listen out for him” can still invoke terror in Casmir, who may be homosexual and his German family a complete fabrication. Elaine Cassidy is perfect as the elegantly alcoholic Alice, in an unhappy marriage with husband Eamon, Emmet Kirwan, both creating a beautiful portrait of restrained misery, and Eileen Walsh is heartbreaking as Judith, the daughter who stayed to look after Father, trying her best to hold it all together. Her only hope comes in the figure of local handyman Willy Diver, (David Ganly, whose gruff practicality and kindness shine through), a man of lower class who will not raise his standards for her, but will provide. That piano playing Claire herself is on medication illustrates the level of denial in this house, and Aisling Loftus is wonderful here as the girl sleep walking into an “arranged” marriage with a much older man, just to secure her future. Uncle George is a silent figure beautifully created by Ciaran McIntyre, not speaking until the end, where he also displays enormous practicality about his remaining days.
It’s Uncle George that peels wallpaper away during the play’s progression, finally revealing a romantic portrait of the house and the ideal family of yesteryear, and as Friel strips away the wallpaper, he adds layer upon layer of depth and emotional complexity that this production perfectly captures. It’s not vintage Friel, it doesn’t reach the powerful heights of, say, Translations or Dancing at Lughnasa, and the opening act feels a little stilted and cautious. But the, short, third act is a master class of revelation, each emotion, both spoken and unspoken, gently unpeeled, your patience rewarded. The Donmar is having an excellent year; exquisite production follows exquisite production, containing the finest acting ensembles seen in London. This production enhances that reputation further.