Those who love Brian Friel are going to be in their element with this one. Those who don’t may just keel over and die after seeing The Home Place, confirming as it might, all the criticisms theatre sometimes has thrown at it of being antediluvian, irrelevant and out-of-date.
The problem is partly in manner and presentation – certainly not in context. Friel has been at the Chekhov too long. Your heart sinks at the opening: Peter McKintosh's elegant set of french windows backed by a row of birches, Derbhle Crotty's spick-and-span, local Irish girl-made-good Victorian housekeeper, wreathed in thoughtfulness, listening to the sound of children's voices gently wafting on the breeze, taking in the laundry.
And yet, by the end, the heart is also taken hostage, surprised by the complexity and range of Friel's vision, nothing less than a ‘where we are' commentary via colonial land-owning (inevitably) and, unexpectedly, genetics and, by inference, our love affair with DNA (chilling). You have to marvel at the old wizard even as you wonder at the dirge-like pace of Adrian Noble's Gate Theatre, Dublin production, Friel's sometime clunking symbolism, and a typically idiosyncratic performance from Tom Courtenay as benevolent English landowner, Christopher Gore.
In 1870s Ballybeg, Donegal (the same fictional location, interestingly, as Friel's other great Irish history play, Translations), the Gore family, originally from Kent, have run the Donegal estate for generations. But things are changing, not in any obvious political form but, Friel lets us see, in a roundabout way, through a visiting cousin, Nick Dunning's repugnant (beautifully acted) Richard, an anthropologist with abhorrent ideas concerning racial superiority.
Like DNA scientists today, Richard believes genetics hold the key to human behaviour. “If we could break into that vault,” he tells Christopher's gentle son, David, “we wouldn't control just an empire. We would rule the entire universe.”
Richard's intervention – he comes to measure the local tenants – is a crucial element in the breaking up of the delicate ecological balance Christopher's family have carefully built up over decades. That and a father and son competition for housekeeper Margaret's hand. Friel's latent themes of displacement and conflicting loyalties – the messy swamp of cross-current emotions set up by occupation in any outpost, from Ireland to Zimbabwe – comes ultimately and poignantly to the fore.
Both Courtenay and Crotty bring luminous depths to their portrayals, and there’s a mesmerising moment from Harry Towb as Crotty's drunken, choir-master father, a typical, forgotten custodian of Irish history and Friel resurrection.
- Carole Woddis