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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Aristocrats
Lyttelton Theatre Summer 2005

Brian Friel's 1979 play shows the Irish Catholic gentry in decline as the family in a small village's Big House slowly comes to grips with the end of what may or may not have been a golden heritage.

I will now be far from the first to point out the echoes of Chekhov here. As in The Cherry Orchard, Friel both celebrates the beauty of the past and questions just how real it was, both regrets an epochal change and shows us why it is both necessary and positive.

And as with Chekhov, there is an unforced allegory here, about the Irish cultural romanticising of its past and the need to give up some of that lovely fantasy in order to move forward. I stress the 'unforced' because, again as with Chekhov, Friel anchors his play so solidly in a domestic reality that the characters always remain recognizable and sympathetic human beings and never lapse into mere symbols.

The three sisters (a fourth is, of course, a nun in Africa) and brother (Chekhov again!) gather in the decaying biggest-house-in-the-village and try not to notice that father is dying, that brother is barely functional, that one sister is marrying an older man just to get away, and that the only vitality around lies in the one local peasant who married one sister and the one who loves another.

As the siblings escape into music, memories of croquet on the lawn, and family myths - virtually every great Catholic of the past 200 years is said to have visited, and the chair Yeats sat in and the one from which Hopkins recited his verse are revered - Friel walks the delicate Chekhovian line of letting us see them as both lovely and ridiculous.

And. with only a couple of slip-ups, this National Theatre revival directed by Tom Cairns captures all of the play's complex emotions and overtones, making for a very moving and involving evening.

The one biggest flaw lies in a key performance. Andrew Scott has been allowed or directed to play the comic and pathetic brother as a really unpleasant-to-be-around nutcase. His characterisation sent me back to the text, where Friel stresses that the man should not be played as a freak, but merely as a sad, socially awkward figure with a few eccentricities.

But Scott makes him a manic mass of uninterrupted tics - Americans, think of Martin Short at his most hysterical; Brits, of Lee Evans - reducing him to the kind of obvious madman you would cross the street to avoid. He is particularly distracting in the context of the general underplaying around him, and just keeps breaking the sense of reality.

The production is also a little less successful than one could wish in papering over some of the play's minor weaknesses. Attractive performances by Brian Doherty and Peter McDonald as the two local lads drawn into the family can't quite disguise their predominantly symbolic function, while Stephen Boxer as a visiting American researcher can't really make a believable character out of what is too obviously an author's device to justify questions and answers about the family past.

But these are not crippling flaws. This is a quiet little play, about characters you come to care about, with historical and cultural implications that unobtrusively reverberate beyond its specifics. It is, in short, Chekhovian, and very satisfyingly so.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Aristocrats - Nationa l2005