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FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

Lyndsey Turner and the Donmar have been almost synonymous with Friel revivals. Richard Howell’s shallow swimming pool design with Paul Constable’s lighting suggests the balmy outdoors where much almost happens. Christopher Shutt’s sound design works overtime. Alex Baranowski’s music slides in and out of evocation. Till September 22nd



Apart from the National’s Translations, Lyndsey Turner and the Donmar have been almost synonymous with Friel revivals. Like the National production just closed, they’re nailingly triumphant too.


Aristocrats from 1979 inaugurates that two-year run of mid-period masterworks continuing with Translations and Faith Healer – revived here by Turner in 2016. With its device of American academic Tom Hoffnung interrogating the family of decaying Ballybeg Hall, Aristocrats poses problems of balance the later plays solved, and this production deliberately tips and recesses.


Into an abandoned swimming pool for a start as Richard Howell takes over set-design at short notice from Es Devlin. The eggshell-blue shallow pit’s scattered with few household items like chairs that aren’t shrunk into the doll’s house model of the Big House, itself pristine. Whilst behind the pit the eggshell backdrop’s gradually stripped away by silent Uncle George revealing a typically provincial rococo scene of the Big House with lounging figures in their pomp. Paul Constable’s lighting suggests the balmy outdoors where much almost happens.


Turner’s clearly decided Chekhovian naturalism has to go; Friel himself was restlessly theatrical. Turner tears off dustsheets too. He’s taken Friel’s own disruptive trope and run with it. This is a baby-monitor, fitted at the opening so the stroke-felled patriarch can bawl instructions with a (now) uncomfortably topical relevance.


So Christopher Shutt’s sound design works overtime, relaying not simply James Laurenson’s Father but – curiously – Friel’s stage instructions, following the announcement of what act it is. There’s various reproductions of Chopin from offstage to cassette tape. Actors stand at the back till they’re required and occasionally slope off. Alex Baranowski’s music slides in and out of evocation.


It’s as if some of Faith Healer’s vibrant stasis gets imported backwards. Turner’s underscoring Friel’s depiction of the O’Donoghue family’s alienation. They’re both Catholic, thus though High Court judges, not part of the ruling Irish ascendency; and cut off from Catholic villagers in their oppressive Protestant trappings. And each successive generation loses its legal prowess. The son of the house Casimir is a failed solicitor. That swimming pool’s almost a goldfish bowl.


As if Friel’s play doesn’t already offer off-kilter dissonances. Hoffnung for instance never slips into the action, unlike say Lieutenant Yolland in Translations – and perhaps Hoffnung’s reticence even suggested a corrective in that next play. But it’s still masterly, the most satisfying working-out of Friel’s Chekhovian vein. Here it’s overt: the Big House with elements of Three Sisters (here there’s an absent fourth on a tape recorder) and inevitably the closing-up of The Cherry Orchard with the forlorn eldest, Judith: but with a kick of difference.


David Ganly’s ever-cheerful Willie Diver’s fixing that intercom. His importance has to wait the length of the play. The family have gathered to celebrate the youngest daughter Claire’s escape. Gifted enough to be offered a scholarship abroad at sixteen we learn Father vetoed it: ‘more than naughty’ a fey Casimir notes. Now twelve years on and on meds she’s taking the first offer, whilst playing all Chopin offstage, obsessively tabulated down to key, opus and family nickname by David Dawson’s Asperger-ish Casimir to Paul Higgins’ Hoffnung, dutifully taking down lore and then querying it. Higgins well conveys a man with a shaft of buried warmth but his character’s a catalyst, one who uncovers but himself remains untouched, always off in an outhouse.


Dawson’s sovereign as the fantasising frightened Casimir, feeding stolid Hoffnung’s doubts with ever wilder literary visits. Catholic converts like G. K. Chesterton you take in. Reclusive Hopkins reciting his The Wreck of the Deutschland and Protestant Willie Yeats fixing Casmir with cold eyes, well Casimir can never give dates and Hoffnung’s juggernaut thesis starts ploughing them up in furrows long as his thesis title.


Dawson’s unnerving capacity to pitch Casmir’s voice with its borderline instability is the literally mercurial core of this moss-clad work. That’s nothing though to the family Casimir claims in Hamburg, always putting through fruitless trunk calls to evanescent beings.


It’s the plight of the sisters though that centres sympathy. Aisling Loftus’ Claire exists peripherally, always heard, speaking far less often. Loftus makes of her someone traumatised a long time back, self-deprecating, still young but haunted by her younger self though she disavows her potential: ‘a very good pianist, not a great one, though I used to think so.’ You don’t know, nor the identity of the man in the village she’s throwing herself on. Not the only sister to in fact.


Eileen Walsh’s Judith caring for their tyrant father banks fires till towards the end where Walsh invests her with devastating clarity, the one who sees what no-one except perhaps Claire will, the truth of near-bankruptcy. Friel leaves Judith to nail this when like Claire she’s been overshadowed by glamorous alcoholic Alice, Elaine Cassidy’s London exile, disinhibited by drink, rhapsodic about the house and almost as deluded as Casmir.


Cassidy’s arc of exuberance is shrouded by a bruise from husband Eamon who though a bright legal mind is exiled to London’s GLC for pushing the claims of the 1968 rights marchers just twenty miles over the border. The fact he admits striking Alice – who covers for him – is both shocking and nakedly disarming. Friel though refuses to shadow this as a fundamentally abusive relationship: more co-dependence with a glint of hope. There’s still a fizzing chemistry between Cassidy and Emmet Kirwan’s Eamon.


Kirwan naturally relishes the erudite, sardonic commentaries from a man supremely ambivalent; the outsider who’s fallen more in love with the Big House than Judith or Claire who live there. This despite his recommending to Hoffnung he should study Ballybeg House as ‘the gripping saga of a family that lived its life in total isolation in a gaunt Georgian house on top of a hill.’


That isolation’s summarised in the struggle for Catholic rights: something Laurenson’s Father despite his Catholicism refused to countenance, keeping strict neutrality. In a time of taking sides isolation’s no longer splendid: the back of the roof’s caved in and covered by sheeting; the billiard room’s collapsing in dry rot. Judith reveals just what dealers have offered for the library and sticks of furniture. She’s literally the only glue left, but has more than this gloom to spring.


It comes unstuck at the end of Act Two when father finally does, emerging to the voice of Anna now playing a violin too, on a tape from Africa, capriciously squirrelled away by Casmir for no logical reason since it’s intended for Christmas. Anna’s a nun and it’s her frozen voice that triggers something. She promises to sing and conduct her choir. Her own isolation from and ignorance of recent events – a deceased Nanny’s still alive for her – is so complete it precipitates a catastrophe.


In the aftermath a wedding’s postponed and Judith’s revelations shift everyone’s delusions, except Casmir’s whose truth or otherwise is left delicately unplumbed by Hoffnung. Particularly he’s never sounded the silent but reputedly supremely bright Uncle George, burrowing through old diary entries in the library. And when Ciaran McIntyre finally answers you believe it.


Turner terraces a reading of Aristocrats that heightens Friel’s study in dislocation. It works neatly though feels over-scored; perhaps naturalism might allow this play to breathe more. And since performances are uniformly excellent, they work slightly against the alien grain of Turner’s intent. All remain consummate enough for the production to cohere. Since it’s the first revival of a less-revived work since Friel’s death it’s eminently worth catching. It’s a work too where Friel’s Chekhovian fade meets a bright disturbance. We need to go through Turner’s production to feel it.