The Home Place, Comedy, London

Chekhov comes to Donegal and the Empire starts to crumble
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The Independent Culture

Brian Friel is no stranger to Chekhov. This veteran Irish writer and adaptor has, over the decades, sensed a deep affinity and translated many a scene of life in the Russian countryside to his own native land.

Brian Friel is no stranger to Chekhov. This veteran Irish writer and adaptor has, over the decades, sensed a deep affinity and translated many a scene of life in the Russian countryside to his own native land.

Now, in his mid-seventies, he has crafted a new historical drama laced with many echoes of Anton C. Transferring from Dublin's Gate Theatre and directed by Adrian Noble, The Home Place is set on an Anglo-Irish estate in rural Donegal in the 1870s - just when the revolutionary Land War against English imperialism broke out, propelled by poverty and pushing for Home Rule and the annihilation of landlordism.

Tom Courtenay's Christopher Gore, the ageing ex-pat in the big house above the village, tries to be benignly paternalistic. He is indulgently fond of his cheeky Irish maid, Sally, and indeed shows more love for his young housekeeper, Derbhle Crotty's Margaret O'Donnell, than for his own son, David, who is secretly engaged to her. Both an emotional tug-of-war and bigger political troubles are brewing.

Another more autocratic ex-pat has just been battered to death and Sally's young man, Con, has joined the violent resistance fighters. Gore fears he is next on their list and it's obviously not without significance that the trees around the house are facing the chop - as in The Cherry Orchard.

The danger is mounting because Gore is politely playing host to his cousin, Nick Dunning's Richard, who is a hideously snobbish early anthropologist and genetic imperialist. He appears to be studying the Irish like a proto-Nazi, measuring their craniums, calling them "barbarous" and condemning as "mongrels" any offspring of mixed-race marriages. By the end, Courtenay is a shattered wreck, with all his authority gone, estranged from both English and Irish society.

This is a really superb performance by Courtenay. At first you think his slow, sing-song way of speaking - rather like a vicar permanently working on his sermon - is going to become an irritating mannerism. But it is actually intriguing, conveying gentleness and even weakness and subtly suggesting assumed superiority - as if everyone he addresses is half-deaf or slightly simple. His collapse into despair and near-madness is, in turn, charted very swiftly but entirely convincingly. His sudden savage temper, lashing out at Crotty's loyal O'Donnell, is shockingly raw.

It is not a flawless production. Noble lets some curiously clunking comic moments through the net and seems oblivious when a character's word is not suited to his action. How come someone is pointing at a flying falcon inside the house? That said, his cast as a whole are extremely strong. Dunning's Richard makes your flesh creep and your hackles rise, while Harry Towb is wonderfully warm and dishevelled as Margaret's boozy, music-loving father.

As for the play, maybe Richard is too much the stereotypical cold scientist; there are some prolix speeches that could be axed; and the symbolism is obtrusive. But almost all the characters are subtly shaded in their divided cultural loyalties and confused feelings. The Home Place is a fascinating study of Victorian racism and definitions of national identity, and Friel is a really fine, mature writer combining the history of ideas and politics with passion and great humanity. Recommended.

To 27 August. 0870 060 6637

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