Lughnasadh, the Celtic harvest festival held on the first of August each year, takes its name from the Irish god Lugh, and the sharp contrast between pagan ritual and devout Catholicism is a constant theme that runs through Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel.
First performed in Dublin in 1990, the play is a semi-autobiographical account of the life of Michael Evans, a young boy being brought up by his mother and four spinster aunts in the foothills of Donegal. Adult Michael (played by Alastair Whatley, who also directs and produces the piece) acts as narrator, and it is his memories of one tumultuous summer in 1936, when their seemingly cosy existence was to be changed for ever, that are played out on the stage.
The Mundy sisters (Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rosie, and Christina) are all unmarried and live together in a cottage outside Ballybeg. The oldest, Kate (Victoria Carling), is a school teacher, the principal bread-winner and spiritual head of the family. Agnes and Rose (Maireed Conneely and Bronagh Taggart) knit gloves to be sold in the town. Maggie (Patricia Gannon) and Michael’s mother Christina (Siobhan O’Kelly) have no income but keep house.
Michael is seven years old and plays in and around the cottage, although is not actually seen on stage (adult Michael speaks his lines from the sidelines). Recently returned after 25 years as a missionary in Uganda, their brother Jack (Daragh O’Malley), a priest, is recovering from malaria and has trouble settling back into life in Ireland. It is clear that during his time in Africa he had “gone native” and embraced many of the “pagan ways”.
All good Catholic girls, the Mundy sisters have their pagan side too, and their pent-up desires, disappointments and frustrations are never far from the surface in the crackling script. The play's most celebrated scene sees the sisters, whose only source of entertainment is an unreliable antique radio, cut loose their binds and dance with mad, involuntary, abandon in a joyous, momentary celebration of life and liberty.
There is not a single weak performance and O’Kelly’s Christina, who still loves the feckless gramophone-salesman Gerry Evans (Paul Westwood) – Michael’s father – who constantly proposes marriage before abandoning her again – is heart-breaking. Indeed the beautifully-acted production takes the audience on a rollercoaster of emotions, sharing in the sisters’ stolen moments of happiness, interspersed with briefly exposed sorrows.
The detail and the dialogue between the sisters is engrossing, and the longing of each sister for a different life is tangible. Friel’s eloquent narrative, together with a beautifully crafted and evocative set designed by Victoria Spearing, expertly portrays the sadness and the joy of life in that small close-knit community. It is a heartfelt eulogy to a way of life torn apart by war, poverty and social mobility.