Aristocrats at the Donmar Warehouse
In 1979 Aristocrats kicked off a fecund 18-month period that saw Brian Friel knock out career highlights Faith Healer (also revived by Lyndsey Turner and Es Devlin at the Donmar Warehouse, in 2016) and Translations (just finished up at the National Theatre). Though it might have started that fine run of form, however, the first of that trio is more interesting as a petri dish for some of the ideas found in its superior siblings than as a drama in its own right.
Returning to the crumbling grandeur of Ballybeg Hall, the O’Donnells are together again for the wedding of their sister Claire (Aisling Loftus). Alice (Elaine Cassidy) and husband Eamon (Emmet Kirwan) are over from London; brother Casimir from Hamburg (David Dawson); and Judith (Eileen Walsh), well, she’s upstairs, tending to their ailing father. Joining them is American Professor Tom Hoffnung (Paul Higgins), there – in an unsubtle, and broadly unenlightening thematic device – to probe the concept of the “big houses” of the Irish Catholic aristocracy for a potential book, diving into the dubious stories that haunt the once esteemed abode.
If there is one thing Friel does better than almost any other playwright, it’s creating the complex ache and allure of history, from the personal to the national. The concept is often as much of a palpable figure as those found on the cast list. And yet, be it because of the play itself or Turner’s production, it’s missing from the Donmar’s Aristocrats. There are certainly hints of it. Whispered comments and snatched conversations suggest the buried skeletons of memory, while Ballybeg Hall is literally a setting of great decay, one the family can’t bring themselves to fully leave behind.
Frustratingly, none of this is truly felt, repression crossing over into a kind of chilliness. Part of it is the design. Devlin and Turner have chosen to emphasise the grand pretence enacted by the O’Donnells – especially standout David Dawson’s sensitive, nervous Casimir – placing them in a mint-green playbox, with a doll’s house and storybook description at the start of each act almost preserving the family in a time long since past.
This approach peaks at the end of the first half. Listening to a recorded message from their sister Anna, forever posted at a missionary in Africa, the family are offered a not-present, a chance to regress to a version of their lives that doesn’t quite exist anymore. That is until their father crashes into the tableau, piercing the pretend with a grim dose of reality. But this damningly isn’t built on after the interval: the epoch of this big house has ended, but Turner and Devlin can’t quite let the emotional rot in.
The editorial unit
Aristocrats is at the Donmar Warehouse from 2nd August until 22nd September 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.