“Aristocrats”: Brian Friel, Donmar Warehouse

Jo Briggs reviews Aristocrats at the Donmar Warehouse.

The only son among the last of the O’Donnells of Ballybeg Hall tells his brother-in-law: “I’d really like to talk to you because I think you … I think you understand what it has done to all of us.” Casimir (David Dawson) is referring to the emotionally crippling effects of living up to the status of the family’s ancestral home. They are Catholic “Big House” aristocracy, with shallow roots and a step-down decline in status — referenced as “Lord Chief Justice to sausage factory” — within the space of four generations. The play begins with four of the five O’Donnell children gathered at the Hall for the wedding of sibling Claire; they spend what should be a golden afternoon in the garden, drinking. The house in Brian Friel’s Aristocrats is the emblem of the family’s past success, the setting for countless slights and childhood humiliations, and is the visible evidence of the family’s irreversible decline.

 

Aisling Lofting (foreground.) Photo credit: Johan Persson.

 

The hall also stands for the unseen Judge O’Donnell (James Laurenson), the demented and infirm patriarch inside it whose voice still calls out to Casimir’s terrified inner-child. Casimir is an unreliable witness who speaks an emotional form of truth, and Dawson is outstanding in the role, giving a heart-breaking central performance embracing self-delusion, anxious hospitality, flawed charm, ineffable longing, and veiled tragedy.

But this is a strong ensemble cast, and there is a well-balanced counterpoint of other performances that greatly contributes to the success of the whole. The sisters have not been prepared for ordinary life and lack any self-worth. Judith (Eileen Walsh), their father’s carer, is stoical; Claire (Aisling Loftus), who would rather play the piano, is drifting into an ill-fated marriage to a widowed local greengrocer nearly twice her age; and Alice (Elaine Cassidy), an alcoholic in a violent marriage, is burdened with superfluous intellect and a belief in her insignificance. Seeing these siblings together is at times as complicated and nuanced as watching a real family that one knows enough to recognize its sly secret language and shifting dominance and allegiances.

 

David Dawson and Aisling Loftus. Photo: credit: Johan Persson.
 

Alice’s husband Eamon (Emmet Kirwan), who was raised by a domestic servant in the shadow of the Hall, dresses up his class rage in sarcasm and subversive banter; he eats away at the foundations of O’Donnell family myth, pulling the edifice down even as it collapses. But gentle and affable Willie Diver (David Ganly), who has also known the family since childhood, tries to keep the Hall going by small kindnesses: renting the boggy land it sits on, fixing up father’s baby-monitor so he can be heard in the garden, driving Judith around in the car — and by loving her at a distance. The presence of visiting professor Tom Hoffnung (Paul Higgins) draws out familiar stories about the O’Donnell clan’s apparently glorious past and encourages a version of the Hawthorne Effect, in which observation influences the behaviour of the observed.

Aristocrats is the fourth Friel play Lyndsey Turner has directed at the Donmar, and with a recent revival of Friel’s Translations at the National Theatre, it would appear that interest in his work is increasing since his death in 2015. Friel’s plays about Irish characters, many of whom are displaced or dispossessed by political, social, or personal circumstances, are set in the context of Irish nationalism and the slow and partial transition away from English colonization to home rule. The plays also explore universal themes of interpersonal communication and alienation, and the role of myth and memory in the formation of identity and, of course, language.