How does Brian Friel’s 1979 play about a Troubles-era dysfunctional family hold up?
Keith McErlean and Rebecca O’Mara
Abbey Theatre, Dublin **** In 1979, when Aristocrats was first produced at the Abbey, Charlie Haughey became taoiseach and Margaret Thatcher was elected British prime minister. The Shankill Butchers had been convicted. In the play, some 20 miles away from the Bogside, cocooned in their formerly grand ancestral home, the O’Donnell clan are undergoing a seismic change to parallel Anglo-Irish politics of the time. The play’s focus is on the most political of units – the family – who gather for the wedding of Claire, one of three daughters, the other two being Alice, a disconnected alcoholic; and Judith, a dutiful carer to their tyrannical father. Casimir, the only son, is child-like, prone to vocal tics and “would have been regarded as the village idiot” had he been born in Ballybeg village. He is saved, says his father, because his nuclear, dysfunctional family “can absorb” him.
The O’Donnell patriarch’s voice (John Kavanagh) booms omnisciently around the home via an intercom. Bedridden and out of sight, he still thwarts his children’s aspirations, as Claire plays Chopin off-stage. An American biographer of Irish Catholic aristocracy arrives, and initially believes all he is told about the house’s association with Yeats, O’Casey and John McCormack. One sceptic is Eamon (played superbly with humour, swagger and pathos by Keith McErlean), a local man who fell for one sister (Judith) but married another (Alice). Francis O’Connor’s set design piles books and objects to link the family to Ireland’s cultural heroes. Casimir’s mythologising of the house’s history contrasts with the reality each character faces with the death of their father. On the croquet lane outside, the game being played is as imaginary as the family’s achievements. Patrick Mason’s assured direction of a strong cast brings the humanity of Friel’s story to the fore. Tadhg Murphy is hyperactive and tender as Casimir, Rebecca O’Mara registers Alice’s complexities with skill, while we see too little of Cathy Belton’s brilliant Judith. Catherine Fay’s costume design is well selected and understated.
If Friel’s Aristocrats says anything about modern Ireland, it is not necessarily about crumbling structures but about the endurance of family and the multiplicity of our histories. Until August 2