Aristocrats at the Donmar Warehouse

Carleigh Nicholls reviews an adaptation of Brian Friel’s Aristocrats at the Donmar Warehouse.

Eamon (Emmet Kirwan) mockingly exhorts to his in-laws in the Donmar Warehouse’s new production of Brian Friel’s Aristocrats that “This was always a house of rest —a house of things unspoken.” The power of Friel’s work is not in what is spoken, but in what is not said: characters speak half-truths, partial stories and imaginary histories, and there is so much darkness and pain behind their words. Director Lyndsey Turner has masterfully been able to bring these subtleties to the stage, with a mostly imaginary set and skillful actors.

Aisling Loftus and David Dawson. Photograph: Johan Persson.

Friel tells both a grand and small story, but one that is inevitably interconnected. Set in 1970s Ireland amidst a whirlwind of socio-economic and cultural change, the story largely highlights the decline of the Irish “Big House” culture: that is, a culture largely made up of Georgian Anglo-Irish manor houses built by Protestant colonial overlords. But, the Big House in this play is unique. The O’Donnell family is Irish Catholic, living in the remote Donegal village of Ballybeg. However, as Eamon contends, the family is separate, “ignored by its Protestant counterparts, isolated from the mere Irish, existing only in its own concept of itself.” The family is a relic of some vestige of the past, which Friel emphasizes through the character of Dr. Tom Hoffnung (Paul Higgins), an American professor visiting the house to conduct a research project on former Catholic “aristocrats,” as he terms them. Alongside Tom’s academic project, we are introduced to the O’Donnell family, and learn about their dysfunctional lives, and the lasting effects their foreboding father has had upon them.

Aisling Loftus and David Dawson. Photograph: Johan Persson.

            Designed by Es Devlin, the set is minimal, with a dollhouse on stage representing Ballybeg Hall, a character unto itself, aided by the unseen presence of the family’s father, who is ill upstairs. As we learn more about the family’s hardships, the plain backdrop is slowly pealed away to reveal an idyllic mural showing the Hall and its past inhabitants in better days. The whole cast remains on stage throughout the play, sitting in the background. This minimalistic design works well, as characters are often describing and imagining days gone by. Although barely on stage, their father’s presence lingers, and the use of the intercom is especially effective.  

            David Dawson as Casimir O’Donnell is the standout in this production. Erratic, quick, full of scattered thoughts and unfinished sentences, his portrayal borders on the manic. He is the failed solicitor of a former chief justice and he is small because his father has made him so. Elaine Cassidy as his sister Alice is also very strong as the unhappy and lonely alcoholic, with a mean and biting husband. Eileen Walsh as the eldest sister Judith is also remarkable. Her character has had a hard and difficult life, but she perseveres. She is commendable, and Walsh’s monologue describing her monotonous routine is heartbreaking. Rounding out the siblings, Aisling Loftus as the youngest Claire brings a gentleness and sweet innocence to her quietly anxious character. The cast works well together, and they feel like a real bickering family.

            At the thought of Ballybeg Hall being no more, it is Eamon, Alice’s husband, who is most affected. He notes that there’s something in the country that “needs this aspiration.” Ballybeg Hall, the Catholic Big House, is more than its physical presence. As he notes, “there are certain things, certain truths, that are beyond [the academic’s] kind of scrutiny.” Friel invites audience members to try and discover these hidden meanings.


Aristocrats will be playing at the Donmar Warehouse until September 22, 2018.

Feature photograph: Johan Persson

Carleigh Nicholls is a PhD Candidate in History at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, but is currently based in London. She is a great appreciator of theatre, particularly plays with a historical nature, but enjoys all genres. Her general research interests include politics, religion, and the law in Stuart Britain, with a particular focus on Restoration Scotland.

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