Brian Friel’s 1990 play returns to the National Theatre
The vast space of the Olivier transforms brilliantly into a rural Irish landscape, a winding path through long grass leading into the distance. We’re in fictional Ballybeg in 1936, where the Industrial Revolution has been slow to arrive and the five adult Mundy sisters live together in the family home. It’s a story about family, fate and the passing of time, with a mild sense of impending doom looming throughout.
Our narrator Michael (Ardal O’Hanlon) sets the scene – he’s telling us about his childhood, in particular the harvest time (lughnasa) of 1936, when two things happened: the family acquired their first wireless, bringing music into the home, and his uncle returned from Africa, where he had been living as a missionary. Michael is a boy of seven at the time, invisible on stage, his adult self watching and narrating. It’s a period of uncertainty for this family, their hand-knitting business threatened by the imminent arrival of factories and Michael’s mother Chris’s unmarried status marking the sisters out. Maggie (Siobhan McSweeney) is the housekeeper, busy making soda bread and believing that she should really be on the stage, while Chris (Alison Oliver) waits for Michael’s father’s irregular and unnanounced visits. At the centre of the kitchen is the new wireless, working erratically and bringing occasional bursts of music to the scene, inspiring the sisters to dance. There’s a strong sense of sisterly loyalty, and a sense that things are about to change. The future’s uncertain, and we return to Michael’s narrative to discover what happens next.
The family is loosely based on Brian Friel’s own mother and aunts, and it’s a touching domestic tale, with larger issues playing out in the background. The dancing, when it comes, is a strong display of unity and joy in the face of hardship.
To 27 May, Olivier Theatre