In Brian Friel’s 1979 play Aristocrats, Ballybeg Hall is a large and decaying house that sits on top of a hill in the remote Donegal village of Ballybeg. Unusually occupied by Roman Catholic family the O’Donnells, it and they represent the final bastion of pre-independence Irish aristocracy.
A rare and dying breed at a time in 1970s Ireland when the landowning class was majority protestant, the family is curious to Tom Hoffnung. He is an American professor attempting a study on “Recurring Cultural, Political and Social Modes in the Upper Strata of Roman Catholic Society in Rural Ireland Since the Act of Catholic Emancipation”.
The characters in Lyndsey Turner’s production are first presented in an almost-still-life tableau in a row upstage. From there, they are introduced, one by one, with a gesture, a pose or a look that captures the essence of each personality.
Aspiring concert musician Claire (Aisling Loftus) clutches Chopin sheet music, while brutish Eamon (Emmet Kirwan) swigs a beer. His beaten wife, Alice (Elaine Cassidy) studies a bruise on her right cheek with a compact mirror.
Everything is crumbling. A storm has blown the roof off the house and the rooms are collapsing with dry rot. There is little money to repair anything and when the Father (James Laurenson) dies, there is even less – his pension had been keeping the family afloat.
There is good work from Eileen Walsh as a long-suffering and indomitable Judith, and the outsider Willy Diver is endearingly portrayed by David Ganly. It is David Dawson’s Casimir, though, who injects life into an otherwise sleepy, and at times lacklustre, production. Whether displaying orgasmic levels of appreciation for piano concerto music played by Claire, or enthusiastically recalling stories of his childhood for Professor Hoffnung, his jittery energy is endlessly enthralling.
Despite flashes of excellence from the performers, the production never quite succeeds in bringing to life the very specific socio-political context of Friel’s world, nor does it justify its relevance today.
Es Devlin’s sparse set feels at odds with the world being presented by Friel. It features an intricately designed scale model of the Georgian mansion, perched precariously but prominently on a stool in the middle of an otherwise empty stage. In a nice touch, as the production progresses, the model moves further from view until, eventually, its presence is no longer conspicuous.
To understand Aristocrats, you really need to grasp the fascinating and complex context in which it is set. Turner’s production never quite manages to translate this for a contemporary London audience.