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At Theatr Clwyd

Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Aristocrats , Emlyn Williams Theatre, Mold , September 25, 2013
At Theatr Clwyd by Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Aristocrats Christian Patterson’s Casimir is the thread that defines the weave in Brian Friel’s characteristically intricate fabric of Irish dynastic life. As the last male of Ballybeg Hall’s O'Donnell family, once dominant and now dispersed and enfeebled, his is a performance of depth and texture.

A fluent fabulist, he has his own family afar of whom his siblings have never had sight. Simon Holland Roberts’ Eamon once “a laughing broth of an Irish boy” and now a grimmer and gruffer adult casts doubt whether the all-too-gemuetlich family in Hamburg with the three sons may even exist. A kind of boy-man Casimir can absorb himself utterly in the Chopin played offstage by youngest sister, Lisa Diveney's Claire. But the distant voice of his father, the former judge felled by a stroke, can freeze him into immobility with memories of childhood terror. As befits the part Christian Patterson’s voice oscillates into occasional falsetto. Small tragedy haunts many a life and when he speaks of an awareness from boyhood that “I would never enjoy the easy relationships that other men enjoy. I would never succeed in life” it comes with the deepest of pathos.

“Aristocrats” was written the year of Haughey’s accession to power, a different kind of Taoiseach and herald of a very different Ireland. Much of Friel’s magisterial oeuvre takes place in his fictional community of Ballybeg. The O’Donnell holding, with its useless boggy land, its part-polythene roofing, its seventeen carefully deployed buckets to catch the rain, is a world away from Ireland’s period of Celtic Tigery. It is the Ireland before tycoons, giant semi-conductor factories and overweening banks where even a call to Hamburg is a challenge to the country’s rickety telephone system.

The play has been called Friel’s most Chekhovian but it is a term that comes too easy. Chekhov’s world is one of stasis, whereas the O’Donnells of Ballybeg have already quit for England, Europe and Africa. The play is one of part-return, and even Uncle George, the near-wordless Stephen Marzella, is ready for emigration. Tellingly, it is the foreign Johnny Walker rather than Bushmills from which the visitors freely swig.

Brendan Charleson is visiting Chicago academic Tom Hoffnung, a relaxed, enquiring presence in a role that leans more towards plot device than deep character. He is there to hear the history and unpick the family fables that run through this uncommon Catholic estate. In Casimir’s telling most of Irish history has passed through the Hall’s drawing-room. O’Connell and Yeats, Cardinal Newman and Manley Hopkins, Belloc and Chesterton have all left their souvenir memories. Visitor Hoffnung wonders if it is all entirely true but leaves it, accepting that myth becomes the truth.

Mike Britton’s design is a sweep of sunlit grassy hillock. Vast skies on two sides indicate not just Ballybeg Hall’s openness to wind and rain but the gusts of time and history blowing through late 1970’s Ireland. The Civil Rights struggle just a few dozen miles away has been cause for a short involvement by Eamon. The staging and design feel monumental with the audience pressed back to four rows of seating on three sides of the Emlyn Williams stage. Its scale allows the large cast to move widely across their shared and private spaces.

The cast includes Catrin Aaron as London-based dancer-alcoholic sister Alice, Victoria John as stay-at-home carer-labourer sister Judith, and Kai Owen as Willie Diver, the Ballybeg handyman with his slot-machine income and small rental assistance to the strapped O’Donnells.

“Aristocrats”, winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle award for Best Foreign Play and the Evening Standard Best Play award, is a large play not often revived and not easily undertaken. It is the kind of work for which Wales’ large classical company is intended. It is a complement to the better-known “Dancing at Lughnasa” also luminously directed by Kate Wasserberg. Kate Wasserberg’s time in Wales has included work by Mamet, Wesker and Patrick Hamilton and new writing from Tim Price, Matthew Trevannion and Matthew Bulgo. “Aristocrats” is a swansong of pride and accomplishment to a contribution to theatre in Wales of the highest distinction.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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