The Theatreguide.London Review
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Summer 2018
It is a cliche but an inescapable one to compare Brian Friel to Chekhov, and Aristocrats, with its simultaneous mourning for and condemnation of a dying culture, is his most Chekhovian play.
Lyndsey Turner's production demonstrates that clearly, while also pinpointing the ways the very fine Irish playwright is not as great as the Russian one.
The play looks at the Irish Catholic squirearchy, represented here by the family that has lived in a village's big house for generations.
Once figures of respect and hosts to the great and the good, they are represented in the current (1970s) generation by an alcoholic, a heavily drugged depressive, a total fantasist and a bitter spinster.
On the weekend that their father (a retired local judge and the last to have even a tenuous claim to dignity) dies, the others face or fail to face the decay of the building and the dissolution of the family.
Like Chekhov (and like other chroniclers of a dying past, from Tennessee Williams through John Osborne) Friel regrets the loss of what was once beautiful while clear-headedly recognising both that its time has passed and that it may never have been as beautiful as it likes to believe.
The strengths of Aristocrats lie in this double vision and in the opportunities it provides for actors to play characters who betray truths about themselves they may not themselves realise.
The weaknesses of Aristocrats lie largely in Friel's need to spell everything out for us, repeatedly depriving us of the satisfaction of figuring it out for ourselves.
Every single insight the play offers is eventually spoken out loud by one character or another. For example, a visiting American academic is written into the play primarily to explain that this family is representative of a whole subculture he is studying and to ask questions that will cue revelatory answers.
Meanwhile family lore has it that every prominent Catholic, every prominent Irishman and every prominent poet, composer and artist of the past two centuries has visited this house, and they can point out Yeats's chair or Hopkins's cigarette burn.
But just as the list is getting a little comic in its comprehensiveness, the American points out for us that the dates don't quite work.
Whatever secrets there are in the family's past, whatever hidden sides or tragedies there are to the individual characters, sooner or later somebody is going to tell us, and doing all the work for us keeps this play from real greatness.
Perhaps trying to separate Friel from Chekhov, director Lyndsey Turner fights any impulse to colour it all in an autumnal stillness, directing the actors to play in a more active and harder-edged mode.
David Dawson plays the brother so committed to myths of the past that he is somewhat disconnected from the present and even his sisters aren't quite sure how much of what he tells them about his own life is real.
But instead of being dreamy and lost in the past, Dawson makes him manic to the edge of hysteria in a thoroughly convincing but exhaustingly tic-filled portrait of the energy it takes to sustain denial.
Elaine Cassidy's alcoholic sister is more sharp-edged and sharp-tongued than escapist, while Aisling Loftus's emotionally fragile and heavily tranquillised youngest sister actually comes across as perky and happy.
None of these interpretations particularly harm the play, and they do bring some theatrical vitality to what could in other hands have been too understated to hold our attention.
But they also reinforce the sense that this production, like the play itself, is doing all the work for us, leaving the audience little to do but sit back passively and watch.
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