TWENTY YEARS after its first staging at the Abbey Theatre, Brian Friel’s classic drama Dancing at Lughnasa comes to the Town Hall next week in an acclaimed new production by Second Age Theatre Company.
Dancing at Lughnasa relates the story of the five unmarried Mundy sisters living in a cottage just outside Friel’s familiar setting of Ballybeg. Their story is told by Michael, the grown-up love child of youngest sister, Chris.
As a young man he recalls late summer 1936, when he was seven, and relates the events that are going to change his, and the sisters’ lives forever: the arrival of Uncle Jack who, after 25 years as a missionary in a remote village in Uganda, has been sent home for ‘going native’; the purchase of a Marconi wireless set; two visits from Michael’s absent father Gerry during that summer; and the arrival of a knitting factory - the Industrial Revolution has finally caught up with Ballybeg.
Dancing at Lughnasa is perhaps the most autobiographical of all Friel’s plays. Father Jack in the play bears more than a striking similarity to Friel’s uncle who was also a missionary priest in Uganda, and Friel’s own aunts had the same names as the play’s sisters.
The play was a huge international success when it was first staged, winning the Laurence Olivier and Evening Standard awards for Best Play in London and three Tony awards (including Best Play ) on Broadway. In 1998 it was made into a film starring Meryl Streep.
For this new staging, director David Horan, in his first production for Second Age, has assembled an impressive cast that includes Charlie Bonner, a native of Donegal, as Michael, the play’s narrator; Kate, the unyielding, primly efficient, schoolteacher is played by Donna Dent; Susannah De Wrixon, an established actor and cabaret singer, plays fun-loving and spirited Maggie; award-winning actor Maeve Fitzgerald plays Rose, the simple guileless sister.
Agnes, stiff and reserved, is played by Kate Nic Chonaonaigh, fresh from her success with this year’s Dublin Fringe Festival, where her production From The Heart was nominated in three different categories. Chris, Michael’s mother, is played by Marie Ruane. Completing this superb cast is Garrett Keogh as Father Jack.
Horan believes that in every phrase Friel offers us vividly real women, but all through the sepia-toned memory of the play’s narrator, Michael. It is a play that is at once heartbreaking, poignant, and uproariously funny. He believes the audience will find themselves laughing uncontrollably one minute, and the next their eyes will be filled with a flood of stinging tears. Whatever the mood happens to be, at every moment the play feels startlingly true, tender and fresh.
The play’s Town Hall run marks something of a homecoming for County Galway native Kate Nic Chonaonaigh and ahead of its run here she took some time to talk about the play and her role in it, commencing with her thoughts on the character of Agnes.
“Like all of the sisters, Agnes has suffered loss and anguish,” Nic Chonaonaigh observes. “She is in love with Gerry, the father of Chris’s child, who is a complete philanderer and has another family in Wales unbeknownst to the sisters. She is also the primary carer for her sister Rose who’s ‘a little bit simple’ as Brian Friel puts it and her life is dedicated to that.
“The way I feel about Agnes is she’s 35-years-old in the play, she’s on a cusp; she feels she hasn’t missed out on everything but this might be her last chance. There’s that scene in the play where she asks Kate, the eldest sister, ‘Can we go to the dance?’ and Kate briefly agrees then just as quickly takes it back again. There’s a sense of a last chance slipping through her fingers. Realistically, Agnes is past it in terms of finding a partner because she has the responsibility of looking after her sister Rose who is 32.”
Kate expands upon the dynamic between Agnes and Rose and their unhappy fate; “Agnes makes a crazy decision within the play which is to bring Rose away to London and they have an awful time there, they eventually die there.
“When I started on the role that was the part I found most difficult because I couldn’t understand why she went to London and when it clearly wasn’t working out for them, they wouldn’t come home. But I think it’s that Irish pride thing, it’s something that happened to so many Irish people who went to London and failed in what they wanted to do over there and then couldn’t come home.
“There’s those lines of Christy Moore - ‘I’ll never go home now because of the shame/of a misfit’s reflection in a shop windowpane’ - and it’s like that. Agnes wants to do her best by Rose but ends up essentially running away from her family and she failed.
“Rose was her one responsibility, but she failed to give her a life in London where they were healthy or happy and they end up homeless and taking to drink.”
I suggest to Kate that Ireland’s current economic woes mean audiences identify more readily with the hardship and insecurity of the Mundy sisters’lives, to an extent that would not have applied in the play’s first production. She readily agrees.
“Yes, when it was first put on it would have registered as something that was to do with the past whereas now we again have emigration and hardship. Agnes and Rose lose their jobs in the play,” she says. “And there are so many people in Ireland at the moment earning so little so it does reflect all that.
“There is a difference as well though and that is in the play everything is entrenched in the values of Catholic Ireland whereas you don’t have that kind of backdrop today. In some ways, Catholicism gave people something to hold on to.
“There’s a scene where Kate says ‘God will look after Rose won’t he?’; whether she fully believes it or not she can still fall back on it whereas here, now, I think people feel much more alone, they don’t have faith in the Catholic church or the Government. But the play does resonate in a more familiar way with audiences today compared to 1990 due what we have been going through lately.”
Dancing at Lughnasa runs at the Town Hall from Tuesday December 7 to Saturday 11 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777.