Chris Eldon Lee reviews “Aristocrats”, which is at Clwyd Theatre Cymru until Saturday 12th October 2013
Brian Friel returns to his fictional Donegal village of Ballybeg to unfold the story of the declining aristocrats who live at the Hall on the hill
By the 1970s the divide in Ireland was not just political and religious but also economic.
The Catholics had far fewer big houses than the Protestants, and many were in terminal decline … sending the resident gentry into denial. So when the family assembles to celebrate a wedding, the decay isn’t just creeping into the bricks and mortar.
No longer able to afford to maintain their croquet lawn, they mime the game with invisible mallets; a metaphor for a family living an empty life without income. They survive on their fading dreams and their father’ pension, but his death on the eve of the wedding sweeps away both securities.
Like Clwyd’s previous Friel production ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’, the set is neither indoors nor out. Living room furniture nestles amongst the dandelions on a grassy mound. The family is sprawled around getting horribly drunk, trying to answer the questions of the Chicago academic Tom Hoffnung (Brendan Charleston), who’s writing a thesis on “the recurring cultural, political and social modes of the upper strata of Roman Catholic society in rural Ireland since the act of Catholic emancipation”. And the best of luck to him – because he’s picked the wrong family…one that would rather live its own fiction than face the facts.
Chief maker-up is calamitous Casimir, who provides Christian Patterson with the role of a lifetime. He’s large and loud and far too keen for his own good as he fantasises about the family’s familiarity with Ireland’s famous. Patterson is required to be an innocently enthusiastic and eccentric chatterbox, who can tell one Chopin nocturne from another but runs to his sister’s bosom in adversity. He’s a complex child-like character made totally believable by some top drawer acting technique, especially in a confessional scene when Casimir (for once truthfully) relates his revelation, aged nine, that he was ‘different’ from other children.
Patterson is wholly compassionate towards this troubled soul and it’s a hugely endearing performance.
The oldest daughter Judith (Victoria John) is one of the few rooted characters, caring for her father and allegedly betraying the family through her involvement in the Bogside unrest of 1969. She, and we, are constantly reminded of this by the anguished cries of the old man (Hugh Thomas), heard through an incongruous, booming baby alarm linked to his invalid bedroom.
Her brother-in-law Eamon (Simon Holland Roberts – on loan from Northern Broadsides) also has a civil rights past, though his present is divided between a damp London basement and the bottle. Blessed with a ginger beard, Roberts is hilarious in his cups.
Lisa Diveney delicately plays the talented, youngest sister Claire. Her father has frustrated her career as a pianist, so she’s planning a dubious marriage in order to step away. Diveney’s diffidence plainly shows she doesn’t really love him.
All these characters talk a lot but leave the house full of unspoken things. It’s a still-bound family, clinging to the dream that nothing at Ballybeg Hall will really change. So much so, when father finally collapses they shout ‘doctor!’ but no one picks up the phone to call him.
Friel presents their story piecemeal, constantly shifting focus through a variety of lenses. Stances and motives constantly inter-cut with each other and moments may pass you by.
But the overall effect is hypnotic and author and assembly are perfectly in tune to create a wonderfully deep and rounded portrait of the ultimate inertia of fading aristocracy.
Visit www.clwyd-theatr-cymru.co.uk for bookings & information about Clwyd Theatr Cymru.
Photo: Tom Hoffnung played by Brendon Charleston (left) and Christian Patterson as Casimir O’Donnell (right). Photo by Catherine Ashmore