Brian Friel’s 1979 play ‘Aristocrats’ has a distinctly Chekhovian ring to its set up. A family assembles in Ballybeg Hall, a fading country pile, where meandering conversations slowly reveal life’s frustrations and disappointments, hidden loves and buried secrets. Only this is an Irish Catholic pre-wedding get-together in the 1970s, so Friel’s upped the declining-gentry eccentricity, and also the booze.
Lyndsey Turner’s beautiful production is also cut clear and sharp as crystal, saving the play – not one of the late Friel’s most famous ones – from potential well-mannered wistfulness or whisky-sodden elegy. And it is stuffed full of superb, precise performances, that also suggest great reserves of unvented emotion.
There are – yes – three sisters. The long-suffering Judith cares for their once-tyrannical father, now sick; the moment Eileen Walsh’s dutiful forbearance cracks, with grim smile turning to a holding-back-tears grimace, nearly broke me. Elaine Cassidy is suitably glamorous yet embittered as the alcoholic Alice, while Aisling Loftus captures the sweetness but also the mental fragility of Claire.
Both she and their brother Casimir – David Dawson, absolutely superb – seem happiest losing themselves in childish games or reminiscences. Both have a trembly vulnerability, not quite made for this world. Friel cleverly cuts that naivety with an agonising slither of self-awareness, though: Casimir has a heart-drowning speech about knowing his peculiarity makes people uncomfortable.
Add an old uncle, a hard-drinking husband, a handy local, and a visiting academic – doing a study on the unique culture of the Catholic ‘big house’ (rare in Ireland, Catholics being banned from owning land after 1695) – and the stage is set for much family myth-making. And a little dismantling...
For Friel’s play is quite brilliant on how these characters prop themselves up with stories. Casimir goes off on wild flights of fancy about the famous artistic types that visited the house, but there are hints his own young family might be a fiction. But it’s not just the aristos: Alice’s husband, local lad Eamon, can’t help but worry at his own earlier romance with her sister Judith, and insists on the mythic importance of the big house itself to his ‘peasant’ Irish identity.
Es Devlin provides rigorously unsentimental design: the stage is a bare, pale green glowing box, rather cold and clinical. This saves the show from being swamped by any literal recreation of their fading grandeur. Centre stage, a doll’s house representing Ballybeg Ha
The set is not what it seems however: the eau de nil paint on the back wall proves peel-off-able. Slowly, it’s scratched away by the actors, revealing a huge old-fashioned painting. Another neat design concept, but one that’s metaphorically robust enough to feel like not a distraction, but one more layer to Turner’s excellent revival.