REVIEW: ‘Aristocrats’, Donmar Warehouse

‘Aristocrats’, Donmar Warehouse

  1970s County Donegal, Ireland.

  Ballybeg Hall, once the home of a great aristocratic family, was a house of great influence, host to grand balls and parties. Now, we find that rot has set in, as the family return to their former home to prepare for the wedding of younger sister Claire.

  Directed by Lyndsey Turner, the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Brian Friel’s ‘Aristocrats’ is a very elegant piece of theatre, offering a hypnotically compelling look into the psyche of a family haunted by the phantasm of their past, and by the idyll of their childhood.

  Trapped between two worlds, the production reveals the way ‘in which the ache of one family becomes the microcosm for the ache of a society’, exploring the plight of many similar Irish families, isolated by their class, and by their religion, during the decline of the aristocracy.

  The play is one that highlights the decline of the ‘Big House’ in Ireland, so called, not merely for their size, but for the all-encompassing nature of the influence they had over surrounding areas, and surrounding people. Preceding the decline of the ‘Big House’, is the decline of the Irish aristocracy. As times change, so too do class boundaries, and the aristocracy, although still present, is not as big, or influential, a presence, as once it was. The need for preservation therefore arises – the need to preserve, not only a fragment of Irish history, but also the memories of families that are contained within those houses.

Paul Higgins (Tom) in Aristocrats. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  The upbringing, the education, the lifestyle of the O’Donnell family – Judith, Alice, Casimir and Claire – meant that, from a young age, they learned to distance themselves from emotion. Now, however, reunited in their family home, the primary feeling, shared by all, is one of relief. Of contentment, of comfort, and of joy. During the first half of the production especially, as though nothing has changed, the siblings, innocently, naively, seem to slip back into the roles they occupied when all living there, accepting of this superficial facade. However, over the course of the production, the characters come to realise that things are not as they seem, not as they remember. In fact, when Judith is telling Alice of the rot in one of the house’s room, she exclaims, “You must have noticed it!”. Despite Anna’s apparent surprise, perhaps disbelief, it is suggested that she could not failed to have seen the rot. Perhaps she saw it, but simply didn’t want to acknowledge something, because to acknowledge something is to accept its existence, and this is something she could not do. Things have indeed changed, and not for the better.  

  Their father, once District Judge, now lies bedridden, his brain wracked with dementia. Alice refers to a time when she visited him, and he failed to recognise either her or Casimir, his own children, a devastating consequence of this terrible illness, and two seem very hurt at this. Their father’s mind, his mental state, is rotting, just as his house is around him – both are weakened, both are fragile, the house a mirror of the mental stability of the man who lorded over it, both similarly victim of a very poignant mortality. At the end of the play, they are to mourn the loss of both.

  In the production, stage directions are audible via a voice over, and the cast act accordingly. At the beginning of the production, for example, when Tom is alone on stage, the rest of cast are perched on a ledge at the back of the stage.One by one, we are introduced to the characters, the impression given that each is in a different room of the house and they, in turn, stand up, illuminated by a spotlight. For example, Claire is playing the piano, music sheets in hand, and Alice is covering a bruise on her cheek with makeup, late to rise after drinking too much the previous night. Throughout the production, when not the focus of a particular scene, the actors return to this ledge, continuing to act as though they had simply let that room, and moved into another, a clever way of giving this small set a sense of movement and greater depth. When the characters do sit, they do not join us as mere spectators – instead, they are still very much a part of the action, and what they do in their ‘rooms’ tells us much about their characters, if not more so than when they are centre of attention, in company with other characters. The ledge runs around the outside of the whole stage space, boxing the characters in, trapping them in a state of social limbo.

David Dawson (Casimir) in Aristocrats. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  The production begins with Paul Higgins’ Tom Hoffnung, alone on stage. An American scholar, Tom is invited into the household by Judith to gather research for his thesis, regarding the Roman Catholic aristocracy or, specifically, “recurring cultural, political and social modes in the upper strata of Roman Catholic society in rural Ireland since the act of Catholic Emancipation”. Higgins has a notable, yet gentle presence, and his character, an impartial observer, far from prying, sits back, and allows the family to open up to him, to confide in him, voluntarily, offering up information whenever they wish, which they do regularly, perhaps whether they mean to or not. He becomes attuned to them as they run away with themselves, clutching at memories, at stories, only occasionally seeking clarification regarding a certain piece of information. He seems to merge quietly into their family life and, a theatrical device himself, it is through him that we come to learn of the plight of this family, it is his presence that encourages these characters to talk of their past.

  David Dawson’s Casmir is breathtaking. An extraordinary talent, possessing a rare gift, he masterfully gives every character he plays such depth, such complexity, such credibility, such emotion – and his Casimir is no different. Casimir is a wonderfully complex, and charmingly peculiar, character, quite possible, damaged. His storytelling truly arresting, he often runs away with himself, and we run alongside him, so intimately does he draw us in. So much so, we want to believe, and yet, we are plagued by a niggling sense of doubt. He begins to tell one story, then just as easily switches to another, before stopping completely to answer the phone. He tells us of his life in Hamburg, German wife, Helga, whom he calls, or seems to call, often, and his three sons, whose names all conveniently begin with the letter ‘H’. Whether a result of our own rational instinct, or Eamon’s expressed doubt, we too begin to doubt the existence of his German family. When questioned, he becomes somewhat jumpy, and makes certain excuses, blaming such things as the language barrier for why he did not speak to his sons for longer, or pass them on to speak to another character, and actually, there is no physical evidence of their existence. We don’t know if they exist, and most likely, we never will. 

However, rather than simply, and harshly, labelling the character as a liar, it is more accurate to say that he suffers from a pitiful delusion, perhaps embellishing the truth, his past, in order to protect himself, from the more painful memories.  He seems to had a difficult upbringing – he did not follow in his father’s footsteps as Judge, and explains he was different to his peers. Despite moments of effeminacy, he states that he is not ‘one of those’, although perhaps even this we sometimes doubt? He seems enamoured of his youngest sister Claire although, as with so many other things in this production, it is perhaps left to the audience to make of it what they will. Either way, Dawson deftly provides a sensitive caricature of a soul that is tormented, frantically clinging to memory as a coping mechanism, a means of protection, of hope. 

Elaine Cassidy (Alice) in Aristocrats. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  Elaine Cassidy’s Alice strikes a harmonious balance between an aloof refinement, and a drunken honesty. She frequently lounges, hovering on the ledge surrounding the stage, drink in hand. In fact, as soon as she finishes a drink, she is quick to pour herself another. Alice lives in London with husband Eamon, yet is plagued by feelings of loneliness, by boredom, the drink becoming her coping mechanism. At the end of the production, before leaving for London, Alice asks Uncle George whether he would like to move in with her. The character speaks only one line in the play, doing so at this point, to agree. However, Alice makes clear that she doesn’t need him to talk; his presence alone will be of great comfort to her, would help her combat her loneliness. At times, however, a tipsy Alice forgets her life in London, and loses herself also in the fiction of their life at Ballybeg, such as when she is dances with Casimir, glowing, carefree, caught up in the memory of happier times.

  Claire, the youngest of the four siblings, is portrayed with great tenderness by Aisling Loftus. Suffering from chronic depression, she finds solace in her music, and spends the majority of the production playing classical music, a frequent accompaniment to spoken dialogue. However, at times, she shines with moments of playfulness and excitability, most notably in the company of Dawson’s Casimir, the two sharing a very close bond, which allows them to bring out the best in each other. The two very much on the same level, in more ways than one. A few times in the production, she will play a piece of music for Casimir, and he must guess what it is; she tests him. A game they would play as children, this is another example of many proving just how easily they fall back into their old habits, into doing what they did before. Together, sharing memories, they relive their childhood.

  Claire still lives in their ancestral home with Judith and their father, and is to be married, to a man several years her senior, a man whom, as she explains to Eamon, she does not think she loves. Despite new changes concerning the aristocracy, it is still suggested that, whilst their wealth and status would have afforded them much freedom, there was also so much still expected of them. After the death of her father, she is the only character not in mourning clothes – instead, she wears a lilac dress. Perhaps the gravity of his death has not yet hit her? Perhaps she is not mourning? Or, perhaps she is not the kind of person to mourn in this way, she has her own ways of mourning, of showing her grief. She continues to play the piano, once again seeking solace, seeking comfort, in her music, in the familiar, a coping mechanism that she uses to conjure up her own memories, her form of protection.

Aisling Loftus (Claire) in Aristocrats. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  Eileen Walsh’s Judith is the picture of stoicism. The eldest sibling, responsibility for her father, and their ancestral home, has naturally passed to her; she is burdened with, not just great responsibility, but is also a slave to regret, regret at having given her child to an orphanage. She priorities her responsibilities over her own happiness, finding a fulfilment, however, bleak, in completely her tasks, in her daily routine, that occupies her time, her energy, and her attention. She has the rotting of Ballybeg Hall first-hand, and is fully understanding of the financial difficulty in maintaining such a house.

  Self-made man Eamon, husband to Alice, is portrayed with a very rugged charm by Emmet Kirwan. He differs very much from the other characters, given his acute sense of perception and his clear vision. Grandson to the family’s housekeeper, now member of the family through marriage, Eamon also grew up in and around the house, and therefore has a similar sense of attachment as the other characters. However, he is very aware of the current socio-political situation in Donegal, very aware of the decline of the aristocracy, a class he neither belongs to, nor particularly admires.

  In the opening half of the production, he mentions that, at some point, he has desired each of the three O’Donnell girls. However, he still appears to be in love with Judith; he had previously proposed to her, and we learn she initially accepted, although did not continued with the engagement. At every opportunity, he begs to know why, interrupting her train of thought. Although she continues to talk over him, at least for a while, she eventually cracks, and tells him of her life now – her responsibility, her routine, now a coping mechanism.

  A doll’s house sits in the centre of the stage as the audience take their seats in the auditorium. Immediately becoming a focal point, the house is moved slightly to one side as the production begins, although the house still continues to have a noticeable presence, a miniature version of Ballybeg Hall. During the production, Casimir takes objects, pieces of furniture, out of the house and, talking to Tom, he refers to each of the pieces using a name of a person who visited the house in the past, be it painter, poet, politician or musician, one that was known personally to the family, each one with their own unique, great story, so great, in fact, so extraordinary, so remarkable, as to seem unbelievable. While the visits of such people will not have been unusual for a house of this scale, what is notable is that Casimir seems to ‘remember’ people visiting, before the year of his birth. As Tom reassures him, though, it is entirely possible that, having heard much talk, growing up surrounded by such stories, he began to believe them, adopt them as memory.

Aisling Loftus (Claire) and David Dawson (Casimir) in Aristocrats. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  The doll’s house, serving a symbolic purpose, on one hand, serves as a haunting reminder of what their house once was. Whilst Ballybeg Hall rots, crumbles, around them, the doll’s house still stands, proud, mocking, just off centre. On the other hand, it may serve as a friendly reminder, a smaller version of what they had, that enables them to project their memories onto the inanimate objects within the doll’s house, allowing them to reflect, to remember, to dream. Their memories, now contained, embedded, personified, in this doll’s house, becomes a souvenir, a token, a facsimile, of their past. As their memories are trapped in this small house, so too are they trapped in their own house, trapped in their past. 

  Similarly, at the end of the first half, as the siblings are huddled around a radio, listening to a recording containing personal messages for each of them, James Laurenson‘s Father trudges onto the stage, moaning, shouting, and smashes the radio, whilst his children jump up, afraid, clutching onto each other. Once again, we see the ability of inanimate objects in evoking powerful memories, as if they are contained in the very fabric of such things. However, either the memories here are painful, or their father, suffering from dementia, is merely pained at not being able to remember?

  At the play’s opening, David Ganly’s steadfast and endearingly benevolent Willie Diver (a man who grew up in the village, highlighting the integration of these two classes) is fitting an alarm, an intercom, which allows the bedridden Judge O’Donnell to communicate with his children, Judith in particular, calling for them when needed. The alarm hangs above the centre of the stage for the duration of the production, bearing down on the characters. Twice within the show, Father speaks directly to Casimir via the alarm. After barking his name, he proceeds to ask Casimir to go to him. However, each time, Casimir declares himself to have been “caught out” and, visibly moved, is very affected by this, reacting like a naughty child that has been caught doing something he shouldn’t. In fact, the second time, he drops to his knees, and breaks down in tears, Judith hastening to comfort him. Perhaps, in his childhood, he was caught out doing certain things, and his father’s treatment of him torments him still.

David Dawson (Casimir) and Aisling Loftus (Claire) in Aristocrats. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  Although their father is not a visible presence in the production, appearing only once, very briefly, at the end of the opening half, the presence of the intercom gives the sense that he is still very much there, testament to the influence, the dominance, he continues to exert over his children.

  After the death of their father, Willie offers to remove the alarm, yet Judith tells him to leave it be, perhaps through a desire to keep things as they were, to preserve memory. When he was alive, the alarm served as a means of communication between Judith and her father, so perhaps her reluctance to be rid of the alarm shows her desire to communicate, with the memory of her father. The production really plays to, really explore, the significance of reminders, and their ability to help one cope with the grief associated with loss.

  At the beginning of the second half of the production, once again, the characters are doing as directed by the narrator, following stage directions. Casimir is crawling around on his hands and knees, feeling for holes in the ground, holes that mark where croquet hoops once stood. He marks out four points, the perimeter of where the game was played. He then offers an imaginary croquet mallet to sister Claire, and the two playfully indulge in an imaginary game of croquet, weaving around the stage, in and out of the other characters. So vivid, so powerful, are their imaginations, they are able to see reality in the imaginary. Casimir, however, is forced to sto when the phone rings for him, so Claire encourages Willie to play with her. He reluctantly gets up, but immediately feels like an “eejit”. He has a different outlook to the game, possibly due to his different upbringing – he is a realist, they, idealists. However, he soon warms to the game, and even declares himself the winner, perhaps subtly highlighting the appeal of such a fantasy.

Elaine Cassidy (Alice) and Emmet Kirwan (Eamon) in Aristocrats. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  Es Devlin’s set, one of elegant simplicity, differs from the typical Chekhovian style of the  play. The simplicity of the set provides a backdrop that is abstract, as opposed to a mirror of reality, and therefore, not only is focus purely on our characters, but it further adds to the fantasy of this play, to its ethereal quality, and the chimera concerned with the shadows of our past. However, despite its abstraction, much can be inferred. A pale green paper covers the entire stage, and the back wall. Throughout the first half of the production, Ciaran McIntyre’s gentle Uncle George, having no lines, only appearing a couple of times, sits on the ledge at the back of the stage, and slowly peels back the green paper, to reveal part of a portrait underneath, which slowly takes the shape of a family, having a picnic, a mirror of what our characters are doing on stage. During the interval, members of the production’s creative team completely uncovers the portrait, revealing a snapshot of the house during its heyday, the family picnicking in its grounds, a picture of bliss, whilst an authoritative male, his back to us, presumably Judge O’Donnell, presides over all.

  As the portrait is being covered, so too are their memories – together, they reminisce over happier times, fondly looking back at their childhoods, delving into their past. Their uncovering of memories is mimicked by the uncovering of this paper, their memories, fragments of their childhood preserving, in its own way, the house. The portrait itself is a memory, frozen in time, a snapshot of the life they all yearn for, hearken back to, a life they are so desperate to preserve, just as they are desperate to preserve the splendour, the former glory, of Ballybeg Hall.

  However, it can also be argued that, what is happening to the portrait, its uncovering, is the exact opposite of what is happening to their house. As the green paper, like rot, is being peeled back, removed, from the painting, rot continues to take a firm hold of their house. Their house, and their present lives, are crumbling around them, their memories clouded, covered and, as a result, truth in, unintentionally, being omitted; details, facts, are distorted, mis-remembered, embellished over time. Perhaps we remember things as we want to remember them, rather than as they truly were?   

David Ganly (Willie) in Aristocrats. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  The production is certainly very dreamlike, so much so that even the audience doubt what is real, and we ourselves begin to echo the confusion of Casimir, unable to distinguish between reality, and fantasy, or more accurately, blurred, and therefore not entirely correct, memory. Eamon, possibly the most level-headed, the most rational, the most pragmatic, member of the family, refers to Casimir’s life in Hamburg as a “phoney fiction”. Is it all a phoney fiction? Is this what they have created, what they are creating, and what they will continue to create, for themselves. Through Eamon’s doubts, do we too begin to doubt?

  At the end of the production, we see once more a reflection of what we see in the portrait behind, a snapshot of a family, very close, bound by blood, united over their shared memories. Willie offers to take Alice and Eamon, and Casimir, to the station, however, they each seem reluctant to leave, to return to their current, their new lives, lives in which they seem unhappy, unsatisfied, unfulfilled. The family sit together once more, and begin to discuss future arrangements, chances to meet up. Casimir invites them to Hamburg next summer – although we still doubt this trip will materialise, or whether it is simply further proof that Casimir has embedded himself so deeply into the fiction he has made for himself.

  Claire looks forwards to seeing her family again at her wedding. She says that she wishes the wedding was the following day, as opposed to three months away. However, it is certain that this is from a desire to see her family once more, than be united in marriage with a man she does not love. Judith explains the financial pressure of trying to run Ballybeg Hall and, now without her father’s pension, worries that she will not be able to do so. Willie tries his best to hurry them, the clock ticking, but to no avail. The family continue to sit together, forming a new memory, that no doubt they will look back on with the greatest of pleasure. However, as with countless other families in this same predicament, their future remains uncertain, the audiences forced, along with our characters, to guess, to embellish, to imagine, to dream. 

The cast of Aristocrats. Photo credit: Johan Persson

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