Danc­ing at Lugh­nasa moves heart and soul

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - GARY SMITH Gary Smith has writ­ten on theatre and dance for The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor for more than 35 years.

Ir­ish writer Brian Friel had such a gift for lan­guage. In the best of his plays, from “Philadel­phia, Here I Come” to “Faith Healer,” he caught the po­etic im­agery, the ro­man­tic flights of imagination that the Ir­ish cast against darker, more elu­sive mo­ments of hap­pi­ness wasted or for­ever post­poned.

Never was that more sweetly felt than in “Danc­ing at Lugh­nasa,” a touch­ing story of the Mundy sis­ters from myth­i­cal Bally­beg in Ire­land’s Done­gal.

The play is so cap­ti­vat­ing, so mov­ing, so etched in the imagination it re­mains in your heart and mind long af­ter you leave the theatre.

In a per­fect pro­duc­tion, which un­for­tu­nately this is not, it haunts the spirit in such a mov­ing, il­lu­mi­nat­ing way there’s no es­cap­ing the way tragedy some­times gnaws at our quest for hap­pi­ness.

The Shaw Fes­ti­val has made some fun­da­men­tal mis­takes in di­rec­tor Krista Jackson’s stag­ing of Friel’s beau­ti­ful play. For one thing, for all the play’s rich­ness of lan­guage, this pro­duc­tion hasn’t the po­etry of the piece.

Played against a set that floats on waves of green tar­pau­lin draped art­fully about, it ig­nores the need for the ro­man­tic. At the sides of the prosce­nium, pe­cu­liar grey-green col­umns block im­por­tant ac­tion. And the kitchen, which is the play’s heart­land, is cramped in a cor­ner up­stage. What was de­signer Sue LePage think­ing?

Un­for­tu­nately, the Ir­ish ac­cents are im­per­fect, too, so the rhythm is wrong and, oh my good­ness, the danc­ing, which ought to in­form the play on two sep­a­rate, but es­sen­tial lev­els, is in one case tug­ging the play in the wrong di­rec­tion.

Young Christina is the play’s wist­ful heart. So, when she dances with Gerry Evans, the man who has left her to raise their out-of-wed­lock son Michael, with­out so much as an Ir­ish far­thing for sup­port, we ought to know the magic of that dance. It’s not a Vaudeville rou­tine.

It’s a dance of se­duc­tion sweetly in­ti­mate, but ro­man­ti­cally sad. It’s a dance that says what ought to be, not what is.

Nei­ther Sarena Par­mar’s bois­ter­ous Christina, nor Kristo­pher Bow­man’s un­like­able Gerry is in the right time and place. They’re too mod­ern for the play’s 1930s time-frame. They don’t fit the land­scape and they don’t hear the mu­sic the right way.

Sim­i­larly, Diana Don­nelly holds back on play­ing Rose’s sim­ple na­ture. Her long­ing isn’t felt enough. Her des­per­ate de­sire for pas­sion and love is buried in a per­for­mance that is muted.

Then there’s Fiona Byrne’s mov­ing, but too staid Kate. There isn’t enough sad­ness in her vi­sion. Be­cause she un­der­stands more than any of the Mundy girls about the heart­less way of the world, we need to know the fire she keeps at bay.

Bet­ter is Claire Jul­lien’s jeal­ous Agnes. Her heart breaks ev­ery time she thinks of worth­less Gerry, as she too longs to feel his manly arms hold her in the moon­light.

Best of all, though, is Tara Rosling’s earthy Maggie, a free spirit who loves a drag on her won­der­ful Wood­bines, feel­ing the smoke curl from her mouth in plea­sur­able ex­haust.

Rosling has the heart and soul of Friel’s play echo­ing in her voice and splayed out in her prim­i­tive Ir­ish dance. That dance isn’t made up of steps that any­body knows, but in the re­lease of buoy­ant pas­sion.

Peter Mil­lard misses the fey, lost side of Father Jack, the pri­est who shucks his strict Catholic back­ground to bring home wild and mirac­u­lous tales of lib­er­a­tion in Africa’s Uganda; tales about fires of sun­burned pa­gan rit­ual.

These sto­ries, fil­tered through the feral flames of Ire­land’s own Celtic fes­ti­val, Lugh­nasa, and its re­lease of pas­sion be­come one.

Al­ways, through­out the play, like some spec­tre pre­sid­ing over tear-stained mem­o­ries, Patrick Gal­li­gan, Christina’s grown-up son Michael, re­lives the heart­break of Lugh­nasa’s now-lost world.

You won’t leave the theatre un­moved.


The cast of “Danc­ing at Lugh­nasa,” a sweetly felt, touch­ing story, says re­viewer Gary Smith.

Peter Mil­lard as Father Jack, left, Fiona Byrne as Kate, Tara Rosling as Maggie, Claire Jul­lien as Agnes, Sarena Par­mar as Christina, Diana Don­nelly as Rose, and Kristo­pher Bow­man as Gerry in “Danc­ing at Lugh­nasa.”

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