Stripped-Back Revival Reveals Declining Family Of Aristocrats

Aristocrats, Donmar Warehouse ★★★☆☆

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Stripped-Back Revival Reveals Declining Family Of Aristocrats Aristocrats, Donmar Warehouse 3
Photo: Johan Persson

Brian Friel’s 1979 play Aristocrats is a piercing portrait of an upper-class Irish Catholic family which is crumbling like the ‘big house’ that is their ancestral home. The O’Connells gather at ‘Ballybeg Hall’ in County Donegal for a wedding but they end up attending a funeral.

Friel masterfully shows how the grown-up children of this dysfunctional, motherless family brought up by an autocratic patriarch (a former district judge now bed-bound with dementia) have all been damaged in various ways, not just by their father’s cold remoteness but by living in ‘splendid isolation’. It’s an eccentric set-up, including a father heard (through a baby alarm) but not seen, an uncle seen but who does not speak, ghostly piano music and a game of imaginary croquet.

Photo: Johan Persson

Director Lyndsey Turner has moved the play away from the clutter of its usual naturalistic, Chekhovian presentation to a more stripped-back, self-consciously artificial approach, with stage directions read out and actors sitting at the back of the stage when their characters are not in a scene. It’s a world of fragile make-believe distanced from social context.

Photo: Johan Persson

The cast give excellent performances, especially David Dawson as a nervy fantasist, spinning endless stories about the family’s glamorous past when celebrities came to parties at the house, and Elaine Cassidy as a possibly abused wife taking refuge from depression in alcohol. And, as an outsider figure perhaps representing the audience, Paul Higgins plays an American academic researching the decline of the Irish big house who tries to make sense of this strange, haunted family.

Aristocrats, Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, WC2H 9LX. Tickets £10–£40, until 22 September 2018.

Last Updated 14 August 2018