Beware the forgotten plays of theatrical masters. For every Platonov or After The Dance there are countless others that have gathered dust for a reason. Brian Friel, that modern master of Irish theatre, finds his 1977 play Living Quarters taken out of the cupboard and dusted down, but while it is a perfectly enjoyable night and is given a customary detailed production by Andrew Hilton, I’m not convinced that this is a revival that will bring it to the forefront of the theatre canon.
There are the influences of past writers and tales here, most prominently the myth of Phaedra which has been plonked down in the heart of rural Ireland. Friel has been called the Irish Chekhov and there are definite hints, especially the familial relationship of Three Sisters alongside echoes of others such as Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Pirandello in the shape of an onstage narrator providing a commentary on the work.
It’s a post-modern device that adds a coolness to the production and rather undermines the tragedy at the heart of its tale. It’s a production that will make you think but leave you unmoved. In its debt to the works of some of the greats of world theatre it’s an interesting literary examination but one that doesn’t have the spark of originality, in theme, narrative, or form that is at the heart of all great works.
As the returning soldier Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory regular Simon Armstrong shows a man who has lost everything in pursuing his own individual glory, strained relationships with his three daughters, a non-existent one with his son and a love lost with his young wife who finds comfort in her step sons arms instead.
Armstrong comes across as smitten teenager and proud owner of Rose O’Loughlan’s beautiful, shimmering Helen, but when she is around him she is little more than a pretty ornament, it’s only when she engages in passionate debate with lover and step-son (Craig Fuller) that she becomes fully engaged, a flesh and blood creature rather than a middle aged man’s desire. She is the same age as his daughters but adrift from them, ethereal, where they are flesh and blood. Each of the sisters are given individual and well defined performances, Martha Seignior as the youngest who is forced to go from child to adult overnight, Nina Logue as the flighty older sister, already divorced and booked onto the first flight back to London and Hayley Doherty as the middle sister who has found herself left behind, physically and spiritually.
The mix of native and non-native Irish doesn’t always capture the music and texture of Friel’s text and not all the acting fully hits its mark, in fact it’s a little muted on the guys side, but Hilton is great at illuminating the smaller details. It’s in the chamber pieces, the small duologues that the play finds its riches. There are worst hardships then spending two and a quarter hours in the presence of a Friel work, but Tobacoo Factory Theatres are going to have to look harder in their aim of finding the great, neglected 20th century play.