Trio of events celebrate gift of Friel's 'magnificent plays'


BRIAN FRIEL doesn’t go in much for public speaking. And if he was going to make a speech, this past weekend, one of the focal points of his 80th birthday year, was probably going to be the occasion.

Friel spoke entertainingly and at uncharacteristic length on Saturday night but, more characteristically, placed the emphasis on someone other than himself.

The week just past featured rehearsed readings of three plays he chose from the Abbey’s repertoire, the opening of the three Gate/Friel productions in Dublin, following their Sydney and Edinburgh festival triumphs, and his handprints were taken on Friday to be cast in bronze for display at the Gaiety Theatre Plaza.

The Gate organised a thank you party for about 100 people at the Unicorn restaurant on Saturday and last night there was a glitzy tribute at the Abbey.

There have been quite a few celebrations in this birthday year, Friel acknowledged on Saturday night, so much so that “I now think I’m pushing 83”.

He mentioned the readings during the week, and “the hooley” tomorrow, “and I’m grateful to Fiach for that. Michael Colgan rowed in and did three full productions. Some few people have difficulty with Michael,” he continued, to loud laughter from the assembled. “They all think perhaps that Michael is a bit too much. I don’t think so. And Anne [Friel] doesn’t think so.” And he thanked Colgan for the “friendship and support and fealty” he has given him.

Then he said he wanted to remind people that this Faith Healerwas “directed by a man we’ll refer to as the Scottish director,” [Robin Lefevre is credited as director of the play in the Gate programme]. “And when the Scottish director disappeared, Mr Colgan took over and did an excellent job.” So Friel suggested there might be an “uneasy spectacle” when “the best producer in the country might become the best director in the country, and would be damn near unbearable”.

Friel’s actual birthday was in January, and Colgan said “it’s safe to say his birthday is well and truly done and dusted. ‘A finished thing’,” quoting Grace Harvey in Faith Healer. So the party was to say thank you to Brian Friel, for the “many reasons we have to be grateful” to him: “for his relish of language, his loathing of sentimentality, his glorious irreverence, his keen avoidance of the amateur, his unquestioned integrity, his unswerving loyalty to the work, his hungry eye, his steadfast ability to hold a grudge, his generosity even with his cigars (and they’re expensive ones too), his late-night gossip, his perfectly timed acts of kindness, his private standards of excellence and above all, we are grateful for the gift of his magnificent plays and the opulence of his words.”

The party was starry, and among those packed into the restaurant were Ian McKellan, Jeremy Irons, Sinéad Cusack, Seamus Heaney, John McColgan, Moya Doherty, Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins, Harry Crosbie, Mike Murphy, Edna O’Brien, Tom Kilroy and Conor McPherson.

The tribute event last night at the Abbey was hosted by Sinéad Cusack and directed by Patrick Mason.

Friel’s association with the Abbey goes back to 1962 when The Enemy Withinwas produced, the first of eight world premieres of his at the national theatre. The tribute featured excerpts from Dancing at Lughnasa(featuring the original cast of Mundy sisters – Rosaleen Linehan, Anita Reeves, Brid Brennan, Catherine Byrne and Bríd Ní Neachtain), Philadelphia Here I Come, and Translations, with the other casts also including Ciaran Hinds, Eamon Morrissey, Des Cave, Charlie Bonner and Darragh Kelly.

Music ranging from Cole Porter to John Field – performed by John O’Conor, Conor Linehan, Cora Venus Lunny and soprano Celine Byrne – was central to the evening and emblematic of the role of music in his work. And the surprise of the night was special tributes from Seamus Heaney and Tom Kilroy.