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Review: Aristocrats, at Donmar Warehouse

Truths about a disintegrating Irish Catholic family are revealed in Chekhovian drama that’s full of interesting characters

04 September, 2018 — By Howard Loxton

Aisling Loftus and David Dawson in Aristocrats. Photo: Johan Persson

IN Brian Friel’s study of a disintegrating Irish Catholic family, an American academic researching the role of the upper strata of Catholics in Irish society is making a case study of the O’Donnells of the Big House at Ballybeg.

Land-owning lawyers, their grandfather was a high court judge, and father, struck down by a stroke but still issuing orders from his bed, a local judge. His name-dropping fantasist son Casimir, now living in Germany, couldn’t even make it as a solicitor. He and his London-based alcoholic sister, and her probation officer husband Eamon, have come home for the wedding of younger sister Claire to a local man twice her age. The real house, with its leaking roofs, is a match for the decline of the family of 1970s Ireland.

Lyndsey Turner’s production and Es Devlin’s design give this realistic Chekhovian drama an abstract setting. Stage directions and character descriptions are spoken with the cast lined up across the stage and, instead of real rooms, an elegant doll’s house sits on a chair from which Casimir plucks miniature furniture and invents its history, while silent old Uncle George peels off the wallpaper upstage to reveal a romantic picture of its fake past.

Elder sister Judith, who with devoted support from local admirer handyman Willie Driver has struggled to keep things going, is the only one who sees things as they really are – and she has her own tragic back story.

As the planned wedding turns into a funeral, truths reveal themselves in a play full of interesting characters – including those offstage: missing sister Anna, a nun in an African mission, organist Mrs Quirk, who only knows two tunes, and Eamon’s ancient granny, still living in the village, who used to be a maid in the Big House (what different stories she could tell about Ballybeg).

Aristocrats is beautifully acted with escaping in alcohol, Aisling Loftus’s Claire, suddenly fed up with the Chopin that seems to have ruled her life, David Dawson’s Casimir spouting inventions and Eileen Walsh’s Judith trying to make them face the truth. Emmet Kirwan’s former village boy Eamon is perhaps not what you thought he was and provides some stability, though even he is coaxed into a game of fantasy croquet. As Paul Higgins’s academic becomes less gullible and the O’Donnells are forced to face up to the real world, the production’s ironic twist is to complete its fantasy image.

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