Saturday 16 December 2017

Theatre: Aristocrats on view in a disturbing setting

Struggle in Irish Society:Cathy Belton as Judith, Keith McErlean as Eamonn and Jane McGrath as Claire Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins.
Struggle in Irish Society:Cathy Belton as Judith, Keith McErlean as Eamonn and Jane McGrath as Claire Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins.

Emer O'Kelly

The profound, seldom-acknowledged struggle within Irish society is at the heart of Patrick Mason’s new production of Brian Friel’s Aristocrats at the Abbey. And it has nothing to do with the perceived idea of privilege as an insulating or isolating force.

Mason has turned the play on its head by positing decay as inevitable rather than as an accident of circumstance. The Catholic O’Donnell family, living in a minor “big house” outside the village of Ballybeg, could never have been pivotal leaders in their society, as Protestant counterparts had always been: the struggle of ultimate loyalty prevented it. Duty to society is the expression of duty to God in the Protestant ethos. For a Catholic, even a non-observing one, duty to religion is permitted to demand, and frequently does demand, subjugation of civic duty.

And as the O’Donnells, defeated, weary, almost robbed of individual dignity by their fractured upbringing in a house bereft of affection, gather for the almost obscene wedding of the damaged youngest sister to a widower old enough to be her father, they find themselves instead burying their monstrous father, the instigator of all their ghosts.

In every production that I have seen, when they sit at the close of the play to sing a ballad from their youth, we are given to hope that maybe now they are free  to find some truth. Not in this production: the ugliness of what has been done to them is pervasive and insuperable, cultural as well as personal. The song is an elegy not only for lives that never were, but never could have been.

It is hinted from the start by Francis O’Connor’s angular, awkward set, dreary and somewhere between

grey and dull green throughout, from lawn into drawing room. And the moment only son Casimir, great disappointer of a brutish father, makes his hysterical entrance, he

is not the near-nervous wreck of previous productions, but

a full-blown psychotic adrift on a road to ultimate implosion.

“Little Claire” is more than depressive: she displays elements of emotional retardation. Alice is more than merely alcoholic through loneliness  and bitter lack of fulfilment: she is mired in real hatred and self-disgust when  she looks at her “outsider” husband Eamonn, who himself has used their marriage  to take his revenge on the world he has reduced to a massive chip on his resentful shoulder. Even Willie Diver, faithful friend and support to sad, stay-at-home Judith, loses his sheen in this production: not a tactful shoulder on which to lean, but a man carrying his own bitterness and lack of fulfilment.

And, Mason’s intense, difficult direction posits, it could not be otherwise: these people have not been battered into flotsam by their mother’s suicide and their father’s savagery, but by an innate ugliness of situation, breeding, and attitude. To achieve it credibly, as Mason does, is quite remarkable, given the intrinsic admiration in all of Friel’s writing for the nationalist Catholic heritage as one of  nobility  betrayed. Not so, says this production, using the playwright’s own text to disprove the long-held thesis.

The cast is dominated by Tadhg Murphy’s unsettling, scuttling Casimir, and Cathy Belton’s calm Judith. They might have been matched by  Rebecca O’Mara’s Alice, except that she can’t be heard for a lot of the time, as is also the case with Jane McGrath as Claire. Keith McErlean is suitably and viciously unpleasant as Eamonn, Philip Judge is the historian Tom Hoffnung, and Rory Nolan is Willie Diver. Bosco Hogan is Uncle George, John Kavanagh Judge O’Donnell, and Conor Linehan is responsible for the piano recordings of Chopin (rather too accomplished for the supposition of their being produced by Claire’s second-rate inadequacy.)

But overall this is a disturbing, distressingly thoughtful production.

Grainne Farren: Jazz

After touring Northern Ireland with Terell Stafford, David Lyttle (drums) brought the American trumpeter to JJ Smyth’s last weekend. With them were Meilana Gillard (tenor sax), Tom Harrison (alto sax), Jamil Sheriff (piano) and Damian Evans (bass).

This meeting of hearts and minds led to an exciting Saturday night. The two saxes complemented Stafford’s fiery trumpet, while piano, bass and drums drove the sextet along effortlessly. Gillard, an American woman now living in Belfast, is a powerful tenor player with a warm, round tone. Harrison, previously heard in the fusion group Dagda, showed that he could play straight-ahead jazz with the best of them. Sheriff, head of jazz at the Leeds College of Music, is a real swinger, well matched by Evans and Lyttle.

The trumpeter, a spectacular soloist himself, left plenty of solo space to  everyone, including the drummer leader who was featured in his own composition After the Flood. The second half included arrangements by Meilana Gillard and Tom Harrison, as well as David Lyttle’s Lullaby for the Lost. The group played until long after midnight, ending with an encore, Herbie Hancock’s Dolphin Dance. Only two negatives: the piano was over-miked to the point of sounding metallic, and the audience was less than half the size it should have been (something to do with football?).

ORGANIST Ike Stubblefield is  back in the Sugar Club on Friday,  leading his own trio with Eddie Roberts (guitar) and Jamal Watson (drums).

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