Director Richard Beecham is enjoying a convenient double date in Oxford this week with his production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa for Northampton’s Royal & Derngate at the Playhouse and a gaudy for him to attend at his old college. The black-tie dinner at Jesus College tomorrow reunites the student generation of the early 1990s when Richard was gaining his earliest experiences of stagecraft. Productions in which he was involved included Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at the Old Fire Station and a Treasure Island in the gardens of New College featuring a rumbustious performance as narrator by the then warden, Harvey McGregor QC. He also took charge of a Wadham College airing of the stage version of Denis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills — which, 20 years on, happened to be on the Playhouse stage two weeks ago. In between his dramatic activities, there was academic work sufficient for this Geordie lad to earn himself a double first in English, setting him on the path to a career in theatre in which he has flourished ever since. An early work in Oxford, which some will remember, was as director of Creation Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet in the days when the company still used the lovely riverside grounds of Magdalen College School. It is hardly surprising that a man so intelligent, so dexterous in the use of words, should feel himself drawn to Friel’s great 1990 play about life in rural Donegal in the 1930s. Famous a celebrant of the transforming power of language — and indeed, as here, of that of music and dance — Friel is a writer who appeals as much to the head as to the heart. The production, which I saw during the first week of its Northampton run, is nothing less than a triumph. Richard’s only involvement with the playwright’s work had been in 2000 as an assistant director on a production of Translations. This featured among the cast Irish actress Sarah Corbett, whom Richard at once recognised, when Northampton’s Dancing at Lughnasa was proposed, as ideal to play the role of Rose. She is one of the quintet of sisters living in fictional Ballybeg who supply the focus of the action – the ‘simple’ one (as it was put). The oldest of the group — and the only one to hold down a job away from the family home (beautifully presented in Naomi Dawson’s design) — is the devout schoolteacher Kate. The others, in descending order of age, are the quietly contemplative Agnes (Gráinne Keenan), the principal protector of Rose with whom she works as a home-based glove knitter, the larky Maggie (Caroline Lennon), who looks after the livestock and to whose lips corny riddles come as readily as Woodbine cigarettes, and 26-year-old Kate (Michele Moran), who has brought disgrace on the family with the birth of an illegitimate child. Not that this involves her in any agonies of shameful regret, or makes her feel any less warmly towards the boy’s scapegrace father, the cheerily useless Gerry (Milo Twomey), as we see when he foxtrots back into her life. The boy himself, Michael, appears as he becomes in adult life, played by Colm Gormley, looking back, with commentary on events of the long ago summer that the play depicts. Lughnasa is not, as it might seem, a place but a summer festival, with strong overtones of paganism. Thus we are offered a “memory play” of the sort Tennessee Williams produced, say, in The Glass Menagerie. Richard Beecham says: “There are similarities, as well, to Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which Friel translated in 1980, and his Seagull, and to Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba. The play is ‘intertextual’. “This is a hugely well-written play — beautiful, heartfelt, beguiling. It conjures up a dreamlike atmosphere. It seemed to me obvious we had to have Irish actresses as all the Mundy family. They have so much to do, in presenting the nuances of their characters in this psychological drama – as well as performing the big dance sequence in which they release their inner demons – that it would have been too much to worry about perfecting an Irish accent as well.” The production received enthusiastic reviews in the national press in Northampton. The Daily Telegraph, for instance, spoke of Beecham’s “soulful production” and of the “stunning” design. Though the five women are, of course, the focus of the drama, the three men make a huge contribution. Besides the two already mentioned, with Coln Gormley’s Michael making a wonderful job as well showing us his seven-year-old self, there are scene-stealing moments with Christopher Saul, as the Mundys’ much older brother, Father Jack. He is back home after 25 years’ missionary work with African lepers. At first a feted figure, he soon begins to show reasons why his repatriation was evidently not of his own volition. Saul’s is a startlingly fine performance.


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