Dancing at Lughnasa review: A thoughtful, adept 25th-anniversary revival

Annabelle Comyn’s respectful and inquisitive revival is engaged with nostalgia, particularly the pain at the root of that word

Dancing at Lughnasa

Lyric Theatre, Belfast

****

Marconi, the wireless set acquired by the five unmarried Mundy sisters in 1936 Ballybeg, seems to have developed a mind of its own. At least that’s how Michael remembers it, as a thing possessed, blaring to life or falling away at will. As the adult narrator of Brian Friel’s 1990 memory play casts his mind back, memories are no easier to command. They come unbidden; to delight, disturb, overwhelm.

On the 25th anniversary of Friel’s remarkable play, director Annabelle Comyn’s respectful and inquisitive revival is engaged as much with nostalgia – more acutely, the pain at the root of that word – as the act of summoning itself. The staging of the Lyric Theatre’s production, in association with the inaugural Lughnasa International Friel Festival, may seem unusually austere, with Paul O’Mahony’s set erasing the small home’s boundaries in favour of a dominant patina mirror that looms down from above. It suggests a play where reflection is more wary than warm.

The idea, you suspect, is to avoid sentimentality: this was a summer of tumultuous change, the pivot point of a slow family tragedy. In moments of even gentle reminiscence, Chahine Yavroyan’s expert lights blanche the stage in pale hues. Memories are more stark than rosy.

From the moment the fretful, priggish Kate (a sympathetic Catherine McCormack) scotches her sisters’ hopes of going to the harvest dance, we find fleshly desires at odds with a Catholic culture of duty and denial.

Against that tension, everything is potentially subversive: the harvest festival of Lughnasa; the paganistic hinterland; their returned African missionary brother, Fr Jack (a persuasively moithered Declan Conlon), who scandalously went native; Michael's philandering father, Gerry (Matt Tait), whose sporadic visits so animate his mother (Vanessa Emme, as a young woman forlorn before her time); or any hints of sexual desire (most affectingly underplayed in Catherine Cusack's sensual Agnes).

Lives of such tamped-down potential require a release, which famously erupts as a dance from the quiet frustration of the saltiest sister, Maggie (wonderfully played by Cara Kelly), who seems at once the house’s free spirit and its most self-aware prisoner.

Comyn and O'Mahony are less specific about those exact confines, though, letting interior and exterior spaces seep into one another. That could be conceptually arresting, but it makes Emme and Tait's early exchange more awkward than necessary, the path of McCormack's self-contained dance unclear. Elsewhere, Comyn reaches for the iconography of memory – camera flashes to conclude scenes in static pose, slow-motion ensemble movement as Charlie Bonner's subtly performed narrator takes over, and, in the production's most daring and curious conceit, a near-ceremonial transplantation of this Donegal summer to the African plains.

“It’s all coming back to me,” says Jack at one point, and in this thoughtful, adeptly performed production, there is as much heart as heartache with such return.

  • Until September 27th, then at the Gaiety Theatre October 6th-11th