Brian Friel’s mesmerizing play ‘Aristocrats’ is currently running at the Abbey Theatre until the 2nd August. Heading to see Patrick Mason’s flawless production of Friel’s masterpiece should be on this week's to-do list, particularly as the play finishes on Saturday. 1979 was a big year for the playwright, with both ‘Aristocrats’ and ‘Faith Healer’ premiering on the stage. ‘Aristocrats’ marked a new artistic breakthrough for Friel, and this current production renders the original play justified. A spectacular cast and set design makes ‘Aristocrats’ one of the finest plays I’ve seen on the Abbey stage in years; a compliment I do not give out easily.
From your first glimpse of the stage the looming but minimally sparse set design depicts an aristocracy that is dying, including Ballybeg Hall itself. The O’Donnell family have gathered for the wedding of their sister Claire, (Jane McGrath), but instead they attend their father’s funeral, Justice O’Donnell, (John Kavanagh). Family tensions and unspoken histories play out at this family reunion, which is overshadowed by the haunting presence of the patriarch's booming voice on the intercom. This is a play in which its’ players are caught between the past and the future; and they are equally unable to live in the present. Obsessed with death and love, the characters are desperate to move on, however they struggle to face up to their unfulfilling lives. The lines between what is real and what is imagined are so blurred that as an audience member, you’re constantly questioning what the characters say. Mythology is proposed as truth, and the truth is avoided at all costs. Perhaps the death of Justice O’Donnell can provide some freedom for the characters so they can move on and truly live their lives.
The cast includes John Kavanagh who played Casimir in the original production of the play in 1979; he now plays the terrifying patriarch, Justice O’Donnell, while Tadhg Murphy steps into Kavanagh’s shoes as Casimir. The play is haunted by the ghosts of family’s past, as well as the ghost of the original production. Murphy’s performance as the confused and childlike Casimir is spectacular. While his character provides comic relief including his ridiculous family claims to fame; when we watch him pace the stage in a disturbed state, it’s hard not to wonder how we can laugh at him? The genius of this play lies in the fact that it is both terrible and beautiful. The actors’ portray complex three-dimensional characters and keep the audience guessing. You’ll find yourself laughing at the character’s statements and situations; then questioning your very morality for laughing at them.
Keith McErlean plays the character Eamon, the husband of Alice O’Donnell, (Rebecca O’Mara). Eamon has a unique position in the play, and his character is essential to the dramatic development of ’Aristocrats’. He simultaneously straddles both the family name through marriage, and yet he is seen as the peasant outsider who has successfully penetrated the walls of Ballybeg Hall. McErlean plays his part with a skill that is unparalleled by any other performance; his dangerous and yet bitter swagger allows him to deliver the only truthful lines about the family’s past. Rebecca O’Mara’s skilled performance as the alcoholic Alice is perfect; she has the audience in the palm of her hand. We delight in her drunken humor, but we also empathise with the profound loneliness and isolation she feels.
Cathy Belton is Judith, the essential matriarchal figure of the O’Donnell family. Her past constantly laps at her feet, as her father reminds her of the shame she caused her family years ago when she got pregnant. Eamon’s feelings for Judith imply that he could be the father of her child, but again the pain of the past it too great for Judith to face up to. She refuses to speak about it with Eamon, who clearly has feelings for her. Despite this, her declaration towards the conclusion of the play that she will bring her child home from the orphanage, suggests a willingness to finally move forward. The remaining cast members performances’ astutely reflect the isolated position of the family in society. Willie Driver (Rory Nolan) is Judith’s dutiful man about the house, and Uncle George’s (Bosco Hogan), silent presence captures the powerlessness of the family. The long-awaited speech made by Uncle Bosco at the end of the play is another indicator that the O’Donnells may begin living again. Claire’s (Jane McGrath’s) wedding is luckily postponed because of their father's death. The need for such a young, innocent woman like Claire her to marry a much older, wealthier man portrays the helplessness of her family. This is a play that will stay in your mind for weeks to come; it is bittersweet in essence, and you’ll find yourself wondering about the characters’ futures offstage. It’s a play that will haunt the stage and the theatre scene for years to come.