To merely step into the auditorium of the Old Vic Theatre in Southwark, London, got up at present for Anna Mackmin’s production of Dancing at Lughnasa, is to experience a kind of dusky thrill. Once the home for blood-and-thunder melodrama and reviled by West End critics for its crude sensationalism, the theatre is now a great, airy, elegant space, its elaborately-decorated Victorian tiers and boxes kept discreet in shades of cream and pale green. There is no stage, but rather a flat space in the middle in which the actors perform in the round.
The set for Dancing at Lughnasa is a simple kitchen arranged as if outdoors, with the bare boughs of a tree overhanging the room, and grass and rocks beneath the feet of those in the front rows. With the plain rusticity of the set and all that space beneath the great dome of the auditorium, taking one’s seat felt like stepping into a clear still evening, in the near-night of an entirely different place. This feeling of muted enchantment which came before Dancing at Lughnasa began lasted to its end. I am still of two minds, however, as to whether this was a good thing or not.
Written by Brian Friel, perhaps Ireland’s most esteemed playwright, Dancing at Lughnasa is set in rural Donegal during the Great Depression, during a week of festivities for the Celtic harvest-god, Lugh. It tells the story of five sisters, the Mundys, all living together and unmarried, who are collectively bringing up the illegitimate son of one of them: Michael, son of Chris (played by Andrea Corr, of The Corrs, here making an impressive theatrical debut).
Really, the play is all about loss or the presentiment of it: the coming loss of the pagan rituals of old Ireland and the Catholic faith of its austere rural communities in the 1930s, loss of the enchanted greenness of one’s childhood and more specifically, of the fierce intimacy shared by the sisters at the centre of the play. But the whole thing is told with such a beautiful modesty and with a hushed almost-detachment that one feels at one remove from the sadness throughout. This was a difficult and ambivalent experience, to be honest, and I am still wondering about it.
I think one of the reasons one feels this almost-numbness during the play is because it is presented as a series of memories by Michael, the illegitimate son. The action is framed by Michael’s narration of events taking place in his childhood, a week in which his uncle Jack, a disgraced priest, returns from years in a Ugandan leper mission. Occasionally, the adult Michael steps in to tell us things about his memories of Jack’s return and his family’s reactions to him. But we never see him as a child himself in those memories. He is always either hiding in nearby bushes or else represented as an invisible presence – the characters, if speaking to directly to him, address a mere space in the air.
The rest of the time, Michael is merely standing to one side of the set, looking on passively at his mother and aunts’ complex relationships, just as we do in the audience. Through this means one is thus made to inhabit his own semi-aloofness, and to feel at best his restrained nostalgia for people and hopes and customs now long gone.
Another reason for my hard-to-place reaction to this play comes, I think, from the fact that Friel writes in such a delicately-wrought and yet humble way. There is no aggressive tilting for dramatic effect here (although occasionally one or two of the actors overstepped themselves, including the crucial scene in which the sisters dance together at a supposedly artless juncture, shrieking and leaping with what I thought was an overdone gaiety). The script is instead written with an unassuming lyricism and its multi-layered events are quietly woven together, like a plain but dense circlet of leaves. Because of this, I keep finding myself returning to it now, touching its unglossed surfaces in jet lag-induced moments like this one, feeling a slow ache rising from it like a deep-set bruise.