The Old Vic, London SE1
  Opened 5 March, 2009

The Old Vic continues in its in-the-round configuration, so that the most distant seat from its stage is around half as far as in its more usual proscenium-arch arrangement. Action feels more intimate. Consequently, Anna Mackmin’s over-demonstrative direction of Brian Friel’s drama cripples the delicacy of its memory-play structure and the minor key of Friel’s writing.
For this is one of his most Chekhovian plays, not excluding his Chekhov adaptations; as a family of women and their brother apprehensively witness the passing of an age of certainty, it could almost be Five Sisters. Therefore, when Peter McDonald delivers his prologue whilst gesturing broadly and constantly wheeling around as if to check that all sides of the audience are getting it, the required note is definitely not being struck. When matters then regress to the cottage of his character’s childhood in 1936 and the gestures and vocal over-projection continue, it is hard to hold out much hope. If singer Andrea Corr is perhaps not so deft in her stage acting début, it doesn’t show in this context.
Things improve with the entrance of Michelle Fairley as eldest sister Kate (like Chekhov’s Olga, a schoolmistress): Fairley is the first of the company to succeed in doing justice to her character by keeping her performance to an appropriate scale. Later, Finbar Lynch does likewise as their priest brother, returned after years in a lepers’ mission in Uganda and showing worrying signs of having gone native in his beliefs. The paganism of Fr Jack and the old summer festival of Lughnasa, and the modernity of the new factory which will put two of the sisters out of work, coincide in the symbol of the family’s erratic valve radio, which periodically bursts into life with dance music to drag them into a world at once of the future and of a bacchanalian past. One does become attuned to the pitch of performance, so that Niamh Cusack as the jollier-along of the family and Susan Lynch, as a bespectacled spinster a world away from her younger vampish roles, also come into their own. But still, the sense of seeing as through a glass is absent. In his final speech, McDonald’s character describes a memory in which “atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory”. Mackmin should have taken this as her watchword.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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