There are many fine elements to Tom Cairns’ revival of Aristocrats, written in 1979 by Irish Chekhov Brian Friel, but there is one whose sheer brilliance outshines all else. Andrew Scott’s performance as Casimir, the feeble only son of a dying district judge, is nothing short of astounding.
Scott won an Olivier Award for his performance in A Girl in a Car with a Man, which I missed, at the Royal Court Upstairs (See News, 20 Feb 2005). On the basis of what I witnessed last night at the National, I’d like to rewind for a second chance to see that award-winning turn – and also fast-forward to catch what I’m sure are going to be many more prize-worthy performances in a, hopefully, meteoric career for this young actor.
In Aristocrats, Scott’s character has returned to his crumbling ancestral home (also designed by Cairns) after an 11-year absence to attend his youngest of three sisters’ wedding and, as it transpires, his autocratic father’s funeral. As events unfold, Scott reveals the tragic and delusional depths in this initially comic figure. His Casimir is a bundle of nervous energy that you can’t tear your eyes away from. He rubs at his palms and picks at his nails, sprints to the phone to speak to his (possibly non-existent) German wife, throws his head back in a hollow laugh, flutters his fingers above him as if stroking one of his sister’s Chopin melodies on the breeze, recounts another ‘phoney fiction’ from the family’s literary past… falls, quivering and tearful, to his knees at his bedridden father’s unexpected bark.
When, in a moment of truth, this sensitive young man quietly recalls his epiphany, at the age of nine, that he would “never succeed in life” and thus decided to limit his existence to “confined territories without exposure to too much hurt”, the effect is devastating. Not least because you know he also speaks for his sisters, one under sedation and betrothed to a man twice her age, one an alcoholic, one a disgraced single mother (played with absorbing reserve by Marcella Plunkett, Dervla Kirwan and Gina McKee).
Brian Friel is often, not unjustly, considered a highly politicised playwright. In this play, as in the many others set in his fictional County Donegal (including his latest, The Home Place, set 100 years earlier and currently starring Tom Courtenay in the West End), the political overtones are unavoidable. An American academic (Stephen Boxer), researching a thesis on the relationship between the Irish Roman-Catholic aristocracy and their ‘peasant co-religionists’, is on hand for emphasis.
Nevertheless, Friel himself is at pains to defuse the rhetoric here. In a diary he kept while writing the play, one passage, reprinted in this production’s programme, is bolded: “The play – this must be remembered, reiterated, constantly pushed into the centre of the stage – is about family life, its quality, its cohesion, its stultifying effects…. Class, politics, social aspiration are the qualifying décor but not the core.”
Cairns’ production remains true to this notion and succeeds thanks to a committed cast, with the brilliant Scott most definitely at its core.
- Terri Paddock