I found it very suiting that for my first review for Young Perspectives, I saw Brian Friel’s ‘Aristocrats’ at Donmar Warehouse. A play about the archaic and decaying old giving way to the fragile and nervous new. As I looked around the theatre (a Saturday matinee to be fair) I couldn’t help noticing the sea of white and grey hair surrounding me. How crucial it is for a young perspective now – and where is it at a press performance on a Saturday afternoon?
It doesn’t surprise me that the presence of younger theatre viewers wasn’t very large at this play. After all, on the surface this play is about a white upper class family lamenting the loss of their traditions and the stability of their patriarch. I went in with apprehension, but was delighted to find that underneath, this play is a melancholy tale of fragile adult-children struggling to make sense of the world they live in.
Tom (Paul Higgins) is an American outsider who has come to ‘chronicle’ (or ‘spy on’ depending on which character you believe) a decaying a ‘Big House’ in the fictional Irish town of Ballybeg. He witnesses most of the children reunited for the first time in eleven years and must wade through the many stories told to him to decipher what is fact and what is delusion. As they plan the wedding of the youngest child Claire (Aisling Loftus) to the local green-grocer there is a sense of how their family has fallen. Their father bed-ridden from multiple strokes lords over them by way of an intercom and everyone feels his presence and disappointment.
There’s a choice made by director Lyndsey Turner to have a voice read the stage directions at the beginning of each act, and I’m unsure that it’s necessary. Beginning the play like a storybook does give us a sense of the history of the house but lies in opposition to the truthful and delicate performances given by the excellent cast.
A particular standout is David Dawson, playing the nervous and erratic Casimir. There is an amazing tension in this character that is radiated through Dawson’s physicality. His movements jumpy and sharp until he is remembering the hey-day of the Big House, when we listen to his stories (fictional grandeur or not) with a willingness to comfort and ease him.
Although Dawson gives a great performance, he is not alone. Elaine Cassidy as Alice (the middle daughter) and Aisling Loftus as Claire also give beautifully convincing and captivating performances. Finding moments of real sensitivity and sincerity.
The set (originally dictated as half a study, lawn and gazebo) is remarkably well adapted for the modern stage by Es Devlin. There is a beautiful delicate doll’s house constantly present on stage. And as each character returns to it throughout the play the audience is overwhelmed with an immediate sense of childhood. The back wall of the space begins as a plain green, but during the first two act is peeled away to show a beautiful painting of Ballybeg Hall in all its original splendour. In the final moments of the play as Judith (Eileen Walsh) the eldest daughter talks about the decaying and uninhabitable Big House there’s a contrast in the set that hits home and her speech is heartbreaking.
The idea that I would have a lot of sympathy for these characters in this moment took me by surprise. I think it’s because whilst their problems are fairly unrelatable to me, they aren’t.
These fully grown adults (the youngest is 27) are scared of actually growing up. Young versions of themselves thought the world revolved around them. But now they face the idea that the world moves on, with or without them. The struggle with that harsh reality is something I can understand.