The most revered living playwright of my homeland, Brian Friel, is now looked on as something like Irelandís Chekhov. Not only has he produced versions of a number of the Russianís plays, but his own work often has a similar air of a world slipping sadly into the past. His latest, set in the ďbig houseĒ of his pet fictional Co. Donegal village in 1878, is no exception. It arrives in London from Dublinís Gate Theatre.
Tom Courtenay plays Christopher Gore, the English-born owner of the estate. He and his son are both in love with the housekeeper, his visiting racist cousin is measuring the localsí heads, and a neighbour has just been murdered. Kind-hearted Christopher tries to keep on friendly terms, but personal and political matters make it difficult. Heís a natural fence-sitter Ė a coward, even Ė who has to face up to events.
Courtenay deftly captures the mildness and ineffectuality of his character: weak smiles, flappy arm gestures, and a way of pausing in odd places mid-sentence that recalls Michael Foot. Then, just once or twice, he explodes briefly, before subsiding once again. Nick Dunning as anthropologist cousin Richard is as irritating as heís meant to be, and Harry Towb gets a nice cameo as a drunken teacher-cum-choirmaster.
The play was highly praised on its recent Dublin première, but I donít think itís as delicate as others do. The nods to Chekhov Ė distant choir, tree-felling etc Ė are quite heavy-handed. So is the characterisation, much of the time: Richard is not an amusing caricature, but the kind of colonialist whoís almost an ogre. And Iím plain worried by its apparent message in terms of Irish politics.
At the end, we see both English and Irish attitudes polarising: folk drift out from the centre to the extremes. Friel as a playwright is very aware of different kinds of Irishness: raised in Northern Ireland, he now lives just over the border in the Republic. Heís very conscious of the twin traditions. For him to write this sort of ending, at such a moment in Northern Irelandís own life, seems a counsel of despair.
Former RSC artistic director Adrian Nobleís production is thoughtful, but when the script galumphs a bit his direction tends not to counteract it. This show from the Gate will soon be joined in the West End by one from Dublinís other main theatre, the Abbey. This Irish invasion does my heart good. However, much as it pains me, Iím not sure The Home Place will see out even its scheduled three-month run here.
Written for Teletext.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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