'I'm only 35; I want to dance!" cries Susan Lynch as one of the five spinster sisters in Brian Friel's Donegal village of Ballybeg at the time of the summer harvest festival in 1936. The idea of fulfilment in any kind of physical expression is anathema to the oldest sister, 40-year-old Kate (Michelle Fairley), the only wage-earner, a teacher in a national school.
The scene, like the whole play, is recalled in a heat haze of memory by Peter McDonald as grown-up Michael, an invisible seven-year-old in his own photograph album, which corresponds to that of the playwright himself. Like Michael, Friel was born in 1929, and dedicates this magical play, first seen at the Abbey in Dublin in 1990, then at the National and in the West End, to "those five brave Glenties women," his mother and aunts so poetically memorialised on the stage.
But we soon learn that the Celtic god of the harvest, Lugh, prompts fires in the back hills of Donegal where a boy has been burned. One of the sisters, Rose (Simone Kirby), will be traumatised during an off-limits blueberry picking expedition. And Uncle Jack (Finbar Lynch), the missionary priest brother who has returned after 25 years in a leper colony in Uganda, will talk of sacrifice and incantation, of the confluence of the secular and the religious he found there. Almost unwittingly, the youngest sister, Chris (Andrea Corr, lead singer of The Corrs, making a fine stage debut), Michael's unmarried mother, will don her brother's surplice for the break-out spontaneous dance around the kitchen table.
These are deep matters and they are bathed not only in Michael's memory of them, but also in the songs of the period emanating from the wireless, wreathed in the smoke of Woodbine cigarettes exhaled by Niamh Cusack's housekeeper Maggie, at once the most susceptible of the sisters, clomping over the table in her great unlaced boots during that famous sequence.
The reconfigured in-the-round Old Vic, the acting area sunk inside the stalls and circles, works beautifully in Anna Mackmin's production, allowing Michael to haunt his memories by walking right through them. The first production revealed a golden wheat field beyond the kitchen. Designer Lez Brotherston here provides a huge sycamore tree, spreading over the flag stoned interior, which Michael's father, Gerry, climbs to fix the wireless reception in the last scenes.
Gerry is a travelling Welsh gramophone salesman on his way to fight for democracy in the Spanish Civil War. In Jo Stone-Fewings's carefree, debonair performance, he still represents a figure of floating allegiances and bad behaviour. But the cleverness of the writing suggests he stands for something worthwhile, too, something missing from the women's lives, just as the religious community reported by Uncle Jack incorporates foreign ideas of sexual fulfilment and fruition.
Friel structures his heart-breaking epilogue inside the "real time" of the play, so that we finally watch the sisters existing inside their own completed stories. Two are piece-work knitters, but a factory is opening in Donegal Town that will drive them to London and destitution; the kites Michael has been making at school will never fly.
Michael himself has left home. Comparisons are often made between this play and Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie. But Friel's play is larger, involves more destinies, and deals, without strain, in greater issues of spirituality and religion. It's a masterpiece, and a total joy to see it once more in so fine a revival.
To 9 May (0870 060 6628; www.oldvictheatre.com)Reuse content