Brian Friel’s masterfully slow-burning Dancing at Lughnasa is revived beautifully at the National Theatre
“What fascinates me about that memory is that it has nothing to do with fact”
You can rightfully say that it takes a moment to get into Dancing at Lughnasa. Robert Jones’ design fills the Olivier’s stage gorgeously and we’re soon cosily settled into the mundanity of life for the Mundy sisters in summer 1936 in the village of Ballybeg, County Donegal. There’s five of them, all unwed, plus a babby and a brother back from a mission in Africa, and the play follows their lives for a wee moment, through the eyes of Michael – that babby – as he looks back on his mother and sisters.
It can seem like a whole lot of inconsequential domestic drudgery but as Friel uses that prism of the memory play allows Michael to narrate and explain what’s happening and why, the power of hindsight accumulates a deep sense of empathy as we’re asked to find the beautiful in the ordinary, to find a realistic mode of happiness in the act of just living, even if times might be hard. I enjoyed the Old Vic production as a real baby blogger back in 2009 but Josie Rourke’s work here is phenomenal.
The beauty comes in the interactions of the five women as they go about their daily business, dealing with the limited social, economic and romantic opportunities in the village. Justine Mitchell’s Kate is the oldest and the only real earner, a schoolteacher who feels she has no choice but to play the adult; Siobhán McSweeney’s Maggie is the comic heart of the piece; and Alison Oliver’s Chris is heartbreakingly assured that her feckless fella (Tom Riley) ain’t that feckless after all.
The hints of the outside world moving on quick and fast are never far away – industrial progress is putting the kybosh on their glove knitting business, the role of religion in their lives falls into question, the Spanish Civil War looms large and thus the tragic shadows for nigh on everyone come into focus. We needed that painstaking putting into place of all the pieces to realise that sometimes, as Joni Mitchell once said, you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone and few of us ever appreciate that at the time.
Wayne McGregor’s movement captures so much of what makes the heart of this production sing, the titular scene a joy of wild abandon, that with crushingly inevitability must lead to wrenching scenes of desperate poignancy. Gorgeously done.