Riddle me this: How can “people of faith” lose or abandon once deeply held beliefs in favour of, apparently, mirror opposites.
The answer is currently on offer: a viewing of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa (which could well have the subtitle, Of Ceremony and Dance).
As told by Michael (Patrick Galligan brings a finely nuanced tenor and tone both as mature narrator and heard-but-not-seen seven-year-old “love child” who builds kites that never fly but scares the bejeebers out of nearly every beholder), the lives of his mother and four sisters, along with Father Jack—late of missionary work in Africa—are laid bare in their shared accommodation and virtual poverty.
Director Krista Jackson has done a masterful job of letting the script speak for itself. The opening section, following Michael’s detailed backstory, has a deliberately slow pace that threatens to have some patrons nodding off with the mundanity of it all—including the set piece riddles from Aunt Maggie (Tara Rosling hits every note and nuance) to the young Michael, yet expertly sets up this production’s magnificent payoff as Maggie conjures up a bird that will never know feathers. Then, wonderfully, unexpectedly for newcomers to the play, the mechanical character—Marconi, the sputtering on-again, off-again wireless—spits out an infectious, toe tappin’ version of “The Mason’s Apron,” the flour-tossing Maggie takes life by the horns and dances up a storm to varying degrees of surprise/disdain/envy from her siblings.
Soon, the others get the bug, one by one. “Simple” Rose (Diana Donnelly digs deep into the troubled character and comes up aces) gaily clumps around in her every-day-but-Sunday Wellington boots; out-of-wedlock Chris (a fine performance from newcomer to Shaw, Sarena Parmar: most welcome indeed!) joins the fray as does the somewhat more staid and constant defender of Rose, Agnes (Claire Jullien deftly employs visage and understatement to balance the boisterousness of the others). In a remarkable departure from She Who Must Be Obeyed matriarch of the household, Kate (none better than Fiona Byrne to scale the heights of this challenging role) utters a scream that speaks volumes about her own desperate existence and then proceeds to out-step her siblings at every turn.
This spectacular explosion of pent-up passions and joy is one of the finest ever experienced at the Shaw since first attending in 2003. Because this magic of spontaneous “letting our hair down” will never be re-experienced, collectively, before the final curtain, it serves the dual purpose of demonstrating just what could be before the miserable reality of just what is leads all of the characters down many dark roads of despair. Jackson and her talented charges pull this off to incredible effect.
The two other men provide Friel with the voices and actions necessary to drive home his themes. Michael’s father, Gerry (also new to Shaw, Kristopher Bowman readily fits into the ensemble) is a chronic liar, dreamer and ladies’ man who has no qualms about promising the moon (or a black “manly” bike) but never delivering: his belief system firmly rooted in the Me/I moment.
Father Jack proves to be the catalyst for shifting alliances in his fundamental ideals. Peter Millard is ideally cast as the 25-years gone, priest to Ugandan lepers—especially in his “What/where is that word in English?” trauma after speaking Swahili all those years. Tellingly, it’s more than the language that he’s lost: the man of the cloth has most certainly gone over to the pagans, as he incrementally reveals regaling one and all with gruesome stories of bloody sacrifice and ritual. There is also the extra curious relationship with his unseen houseboy, Okawa—letting slip that this constant companion enjoyed wearing his master’s uniform around the house…
A pivotal moment is Jack finally dredging up the word, “ceremony.” In Friel’s hands, of course, this is no coincidence. Throughout the play, ceremony and ritual abound: from afternoon tea, dancing at the Lughnasa Festival (and inadvertently sacrificing both animal and human there), to a wedding meant for Kate (if only she could admit it), to the unceremonious replacement of manual labour with soulless machines, or offering to say mass but no longer having the heart for it.
The dancing—momentarily—relieves pain, soothes regret and tempers anger. Its wordlessness is ideal for those who have so much they wished they’d said but couldn’t find their way clear to express themselves. JWR