Thursday 29 September 2016

The 'Irish Chekov' whose extraordinarily original plays were simply unforgettable

Published 03/10/2015 | 02:30

'He [Brian Friel] surely merits the description, bestowed by the authoritative Oxford Companion to the Theatre, of 'Ireland's most eminent contemporary playwright'
'He [Brian Friel] surely merits the description, bestowed by the authoritative Oxford Companion to the Theatre, of 'Ireland's most eminent contemporary playwright'

A Brian Friel play was often, simply, an unforgettable experience.

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I remember the first performance of a Friel play I ever saw: it was 1964, at the Eblana Theatre in Dublin. The late actor Patrick ("Paddy") Bedford played Gar O'Donnell in 'Philadelphia - Here I Come!' The storyline was the not unusual one of a frustrated young man's life in a small Irish town: a cold, widowed father and a domineering church ambiance adding to Gar's sense of restrictions. So he's excited by a chance to join an aunt in Philadelphia.

But it wasn't just the storyline that compelled: it was the innovatory way that Brian Friel introduced the theatrical construct of a "Private Gar" and a "Public Gar", and the interaction of the two parts of his personality. This is matched by Gar's ambivalence, about his home life in contrast to America - will the moneyed materialism of the States become a different kind of oppression?

I must have seen hundreds, perhaps thousands, of plays since that Eblana production, and yet, it remains more strongly etched on my memory than many another theatre experience. It wasn't that I identified with Gar - Dublin life wasn't like the fictitious Ballybeg. It was the brilliant way Friel had constructed the story, the interplay of the public and private, which revealed to some degree, how we are often in two minds about life circumstances.

It was the first big success that Brian Friel attained - after an apprenticeship that even included a spell as a journalist - and it brought universal acclaim. Indeed, 'Philadelphia' became the longest-running Irish play on the New York stage.

His theatrical prowess in 'Philadelphia', of providing an engaging framing narrative, was used to effect in subsequent works, like 'The Loves of Cass Maguire' and 'Lovers'. 'Aristocrats', in 1979, brought Friel the reputation of being "the Irish Chekov": the extraordinary parallels between a fading Irish gentry and a doomed Russian landed class were also astonishingly illuminated in his rendering of Turgenev's 'A Month in the Country' - which had another unforgettable production in the Gate theatre this summer.

Then came 'Translations', in 1980 - a trail-blazing work which has been appreciated all over the world, adapted in many other languages, from Uzbek to Ukrainian. Again, it is an extraordinarily original and innovative illumination of language itself - and of theatrical effect. Again, I was stunned when I saw it, in the 1990s, at the National Theatre in London.

The storyline is about a group of Redcoats who are mapping place-names in Donegal in 1833 - rendering them from Irish into English. A Redcoat and a local Donegal girl (again, it's the imaginary Ballybeg) fall in love, and manage to communicate as between Irish and English: and the cleverest part of the writing is that you actually believe they are speaking Irish at one point, and they are speaking English at another - although the whole play is in English. This suspension of belief was achieved by the creative use of lighting.

Friel was born in Co Tyrone, lived in Derry and Donegal, and was sometimes suspected of having strong Irish Republican sympathies (he wrote a play 'Volunteers' which satirised the Dublin government for "sanitising" the traditions of Irish nationalism): and yet, 'Translations' is not merely a nationalist polemic. Maybe it's regrettable that the British authorities - on the eve of the Famine - are turning Irish place-names into English ones: yet you come to understand that the Ordnance Survey work added constructively to geographical knowledge.

'Dancing at Lughnasa' (1990) became perhaps his most famous work: Patrick Mason directed a wonderful production for the Abbey Theatre, and of course it became a movie with Meryl Streep. Some considered it anti-Catholic: a befuddled old priest returns from Africa, half-imbued with "pagan" African religions which, it's implied, are neither better nor worse than Irish Catholicism, and possibly sexually freer.

I thought this very subtly done - and well-observed, too, about the onset of a premature dementia. If I didn't feel as warmly about 'Lughnasa' it was that I didn't feel much attracted to his female characters, the five Mundy sisters. I thought they were annoyingly passive about their fate: some critics, too, felt that Friel didn't always realise female characters quite as successfully as male ones.

But he surely merits the description, bestowed by the authoritative Oxford Companion to the Theatre, of "Ireland's most eminent contemporary playwright". He deserved every award with which he was garlanded.

And yet, he was quite a private man: we, the public, and his fans, knew almost nothing about his personal life except that he was married to Anne Morrison in 1954, had four daughters and one son, and stayed married all his life. Quite rightly, his genius went into his work, not into an ephemeral public "celebrity".

Irish Independent

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