BWW Review: A Ceremonious Anniversary of DANCING AT LUGHNASA

It's been 79 years since that summer of 1936, the setting of Brian Friel's play in which the Mundy sisters are rocked by the joint arrival of their missionary brother from Africa and a wireless Marconi radio that summons itself to life. Against the merciless march of time, Friel's drama - revived by the Lyric Theatre for its 25th anniversary - retains an image of the past, and director Annabelle Comyn's staging has the clarity of a photograph.

When bulbs crackle against the large rectangular gauze suspended high in Paul O'Mahony's domestic set, the machine object appears as a camera lens, a product of the incoming industrial revolution and ever since a device for remembering. While technology is literally looming, the five sisters are ushered fable-like as the narrator Michael (a well-measured Charlie Bonner) recalls an episode living with his mother and aunts. Something spiritual is barely suppressed under the rhythmic beats of a bowl, the strokes of an iron and thumps of turf thrown into the fire.

After hopes of dancing at the pagan harvest festival are dashed by Catholic schoolteacher Kate (conservatism a thin veil for concern in Catherine McCormack's considered performance), her sisters are left to their usual routines: Kate's pining for romance (sensitively drawn by Mary Murray); Agnes's rehearsed postures of domestic living (a sweetly understated Catherine Cusack); Chris's jaded perspective on early motherhood (a well-performing Vanessa Emme); and Maggie's confinement dressed up in sass and pranks (wonderful Cara Kelly).

Of course, when Marconi comes to life they lose these limitations. To the furious fiddle of The Mason's Apron, we see the sisters at their core: Maggie, with most abandon, throwing a ball of flour in the air; guileless Rose, determined to stamp out every beat; graceful gestures with rare confidence from Agnes; Chris donning a mock-dress in a celebration of femininity; and Kate, in her rigorous and upright steps showing the strict teachings of an ideology. When Fergus O'Hare's sound design engulfs the music with a mysterious drone that suddenly pops to silence, it reminds us of probably the cruelest one-two in Irish drama.

Friel's memory play will be in the audience's minds for another reason. With the sad news of the playwright's passing last week, the Lyric's executive producer Jimmy Fay comes out at the curtain call to pay a tearful tribute. This Lughnasa has travelled from the dramatist's home county of Donegal to Belfast, a scene of The Troubles that preoccupied his writing for a time, and finally to Dublin's Gaiety Theatre, where the breakthrough Philadelphia, Here I Come! premiered 51 years ago. You can't help but feel that things have come full circle.

As this revival shows, Friel's drama will continue to challenge. When the final moments slip into a scene of tribal sacrifice, the mythic shapes of the Mundy sisters are pitted against the mechanical apparatus glowing above. In an increasingly industrialised society, Comyn's ceremonious production shows that those old symbols still lie under the surface.

Dancing at Lughnasa runs at the Gaiety Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival until 11 Oct. For more information and tickets, see the Dublin Theatre Festival website. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

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From This Author Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a theatre critic based in Dublin. He blogs on and writes for A Younger Theatre, Irish Theatre Magazine and the Arts (read more...)