© Johan Persson

How a revival play can survive in 2023

There are plenty of new productions of old works on the stage right now. Only some of them succeed...
May 10, 2023

Josie Rourke’s production of Dancing at Lughnasa, at the National Theatre until the end of May, is a magisterial example of how to revive a modern classic. This memory play, written by Brian Friel, premiered in 1990 at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and swiftly established itself in the international repertoire—the 1998 film with Meryl Streep was more a symptom than a cause of its impact. The play shouldn’t be a star vehicle but a seamless ensemble piece, a glimpse into the lives of five County Donegal sisters in 1936. It is the story of a household and how it falls apart.

Among the many strengths of Rourke’s production is the seemingly simple and old-fashioned art of blocking, or positioning actors on a stage. Her sisters fragment like splinters from each other; lose themselves across Robert Jones’s bucolic, expansive set; and come together in the whirling, atavistic dance of the title. The moment when the women clutch at each other while looking out from a kitchen window tells 25 years of family history in a single pose. Michael, our narrator and the illegitimate son of Alison Oliver’s vivacious Chris, circles the homestead like a wolf as he recalls his childhood.

When we watch the sisters dance, it is to the sound of their creaky kitchen wireless, a lifeforce so finely balanced between promise and failure as to be a none-too-subtle extension of the sisters themselves. It is adroitly choreographed by the Royal Ballet’s Wayne McGregor, whose involvement shows in the ghostly folk steps and the connection between body and vocalised emotion.

But there’s more dancing offstage. Kate, the eldest and most devout of the sisters, forbids her younger siblings from attending a dance to celebrate Lughnasa, the Gaelic harvest festival. That’s our starting point for Friel’s sinuous exploration of the ways pagan and Roman Catholic impulses meet and compete, blend and repel each other, in Ireland and beyond. Ardal O’Hanlon adds pathos as the girls’ fading Uncle Jack, home to die after a lifetime’s missionary work in Uganda. The conversion work seems to have flowed in an unintended direction: Jack is drenched in a version of African paganism that’s uncannily akin to the rites of Lughnasa. If the shade of Father Ted’s Dougal rises inevitably over O’Hanlon’s latest appearance in clerical garb since that sitcom ended, it’s long forgotten by the time we watch him struggle to recall the difference between the words “sacrifice”, “ritual killing” and “ceremony”.

London is now chock-full of revivals of plays hailed as instant classics in their day. At the Donmar, Michael Longhurst’s version of Noël Coward’s 1936 Private Lives opened five days before Dancing at Lughnasa; the Young Vic has just closed Further than the Furthest Thing, the 1999 play about colonialism that put playwright Zinnie Harris on the map. This is one effect of the pandemic: desperate producers are banking on school texts and plays with name recognition to lure still-wary audiences back to theatres.

Of these revivals, Dancing at Lughnasa is by far the most successful. Rourke’s direction deserves much of the credit, but it helps that this play’s social mores haven’t yet fallen foul of the zeitgeist. Further than the Furthest Thing, by contrast, is a cataclysmic example of when a play’s politics should be left unexcavated. Harris’s story is based on the mid-century history of Tristan da Cunha, the world’s most remote inhabited island; the original run ignited a national conversation about Britain’s exploitation of overseas territories. Returning to it after Black Lives Matter, we realise that the patois Harris developed as her islanders’ speech casts them as hicks, and the naivety once indicative of wholesomeness diminishes them into ignorant fools. Even the presence of evergreen talent Jenna Russell can’t save it.

Private Lives is headlined by Rachael Stirling and Stephen Mangan, as the ex-spouses who meet again on honeymoon with their new spouses. Both Stirling and Mangan sizzle. But a streak of domestic violence lingers beneath Coward’s ideal of sexual magnetism, and Longhurst chooses to confront it. It’s a brave decision but unsustainable: the result lurches between titillation and wincing horror. It’s impossible to root for this couple today, although we are asked to do so.

By contrast, Dancing at Lughnasa gives us 1990s nostalgia for the Ireland of 1936—and keeps it relevant. Post-peace process, Rourke de-emphasises Friel’s more politically specific moments; the autobiographical model for “Kate”, Friel’s aunt, was a Sinn Féin activist, although you’d struggle to pick it up here. Instead, we are asked to think about community and division, purism and the impulse to chaos. Few issues could feel more present.