Ballybeg is more than just a convenient catch-all fictional location for a clutch of Brian Friel's plays. The cumulative effect has been to build up a comprehensive dramatic portrait of life in a small Donegal village, present and past, among locals and visitors of all kinds from the eighteenth-century British garrison and Gaelic villagers in Translations to the modern young Dubliners of Wonderful Tennessee.
Friel's 1979 play Aristocrats, revived by Sean Holmes in Chichester's Minerva Studio, almost falls into the Irish genre of the "big house" play, but its concern is contemporary rather than historical, dealing with the last gasp of a family of gentry (who, unusually for their class in Ireland, are Catholic). In this "shabby-genteel" post-imperial aspect, and in its tragicomic tone, it feels more than a little Chekhovian in nature, and indeed one begins to appreciate why the likes of Friel and Frank McGuinness have been so often drawn to adapt Russian works.
As a visiting academic social-historian pores over the family records and is flannelled by self-aggrandising family legends involving everyone from Yeats to Cardinal Newman, the children of District Justice O'Donnell and a brace of villagers gather at Ballybeg Hall from as far afield as London and Hamburg to pay, as it unsurprisingly turns out, their last respects to the judge. Drink is taken, family conflicts and mental instabilities are exposed and, although no real resolution is arrived at, a general consensus arises that this is the end of the line for the Hall. As in The Cherry Orchard, the family cannot afford to remain; as in Three Sisters, they will not break out of their diminished orbits.
Despite having cast virtually the entire central generation from actors several years too young for their characters, Holmes and his cast hit the play's emotional register with deftness and sensitivity. Laine Megaw conveys the bitter martyrdom of sister Judith's being tethered to the Hall and her ailing father, as Seán Gleeson does the counterpart frustration of the envious "peasant" brother-in-law whose material and emotional attainments have never matched either his capabilities or his desires. Most impressive is Billy Carter as the cracked, otherworldly brother Casimir whose pathological fantasising makes his meagre lot in life bearable. I have several times encountered characters on the page whose remarks are punctuated by a mannered, staccato laugh, but Carter's performance is the first time I have been able to hear, even in my own head, such "ha-ha"s given convincing voice; his characterisation is also done no harm by his passing resemblance to a young T.P. McKenna.
As so often in Friel's work, the most profound impact of the play is neither great revelation nor enlightenment of a particular theme or issue, but an empathy of the heart, not with particular emotions but with the humanity of their bearers.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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