Theatre: A bright light in search of the shadows

Brian Friel may shun publicity, but in his 70th year his writing is set to make a very public performance.
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Brian Friel's new play, Give Me Your Answer, Do!, tells of Tom Connolly, a writer pushing on in years who lives in the rural isolation of Donegal. In these details he is not a million miles from his creator. With umpteen impeccably highbrow works behind him, however, Connolly's literary powers are now on the wane. This is where you would think the similarity ends, but the Irish reviews which greeted its Dublin premiere a year ago begged to differ.

Since Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) carried all before it in both London and New York, Friel has yo-yoed up and down the playwrights' squash ladder. While Lughnasa was winning Tony Awards, he got into trouble for saying that a good stage manager is preferable to a director who disobeys the script. One or two American directors may have smirked when in 1993 Wonderful Tennessee closed on Broadway after nine performances. A year later, Molly Sweeney won more awards in New York - a pleasing affirmation for Friel, whose directorial debut this was. But then he directed Give Me Your Answer, Do! with an apparently deadening hand. "Most of the energy of the actors," wrote Fintan O'Toole in the Irish Times, "seems to go into a reverential concern for the nuances of the words, leaving little behind for the kind of interaction that can convince an audience that these people are reacting, on the spot, to each other."

The new play may stand a better chance at Hampstead Theatre. Robin Lefevre, who took Friel's Aristocrats to New York, directs a strong cast headed by Niall Buggy as Tom and, in her first stage role for four years, Geraldine James as his gin-slinging wife. And if it doesn't work out, there's still a lot more classic Friel to come. Later this year comes the film version of Dancing At Lughnasa, directed by Pat O'Connor, adapted by Frank McGuinness and starring Michael Gambon and Meryl Streep. Then next year, when the playwright turns 70, comes a month-long city-wide Friel festival in which 17 of his plays will be performed in venues all over Dublin.

As usual, your man will not be coming down from the mountain to tell us about any of the above. He shuns interviews, keeping his powder dry for the work and shrouding his personal life in mystique. "I don't think he does that intentionally, but it does have that effect," says Noel Pearson, the producer of My Left Foot, who has been mounting his plays for 10 years and is the driving force behind Lughnasa the movie. "He's not that calculating at all. He's a very shy man. But he's not like Beckett or anything. He loves a sing song, puffs away on his cigar. He's great company."

How much of Friel the playwright has gone into Connolly the novelist? Connolly's monstrously demanding vocation has driven his wife to drink and exiled them both to a crumbling rural fastness. It's fair to deduce that Friel derives little pleasure from the creative process. But at least he has some status to show for it. Connolly is a prophet without honour in his own land (or anyone else's). A Texan university has sent a representative to inspect his papers with a view to buying, but humiliatingly, the representative is in two minds about their worth. (Connolly needs the money to pay the medical bills of his mentally disturbed daughter.) Friel, by contrast, remains the undisputed heavyweight champion of Irish theatre, while young pretenders like Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh and Gary Mitchell reap the rewards of a surge in Irish theatre which Friel has done more than most to sow.

Brian Friel was born near Omagh in County Tyrone in 1929 and was brought up in a family of staunch nationalists in Derry/Londonderry - the city with two names - but childhood holidays were spent across the border in Donegal. His father was an academic, and for a while Friel was also a teacher. By the precocious age of 21 he was also a contract writer for The New Yorker, a perennial patron of Irish letters.

Friel switched to plays in the late 1950s, but it was on the strength of one of his New Yorker short stories that the director Tyrone Guthrie invited him to Minneapolis to hone his craft. Although Friel's early plays dwell on the theme of Irish exile - signally Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964), set on the eve of Gar O'Donnell's departure for America - these six months were his only appreciable stint away from the north-west corner of Ireland. Gar rails against "all this sentimental rubbish about 'homeland' and 'birthplace' - Yap! Bloody yap!", but we can take it that Friel does not agree. The plays, like the playwright, have also tended to stay put. They are largely set in Ballybeg, a kind of fictional heimat which Friel likens to William Faulkner's Yoknaptawpha County.

In 1968, with the troubles in Ulster about to escalate into the Troubles, Friel decamped across the border to Donegal. "I would much prefer to be under the jurisdiction of the Dublin government," he said at the time. The work became more overtly political, at some financial cost. At a time when the republican terrorism was at its most intense, reviewers outside Ireland saw an implicit defence of the IRA in The Freedom of the City (1973) and Volunteers (1975), which attacked the heavy hand of British authority in Ulster.

"I don't ever want to write about politics," he told the New York Times in a rare breach of the media blackout, "but sometimes it happens. It's not a deliberate policy to get involved in political drama. I want to be more private and I want isolation, but there's a seduction of political drama. These last 20 years have been stressful and oppressive." Like Yeats, he was offered the chance to have an official say in public affairs when Charles Haughey appointed him an independent member of Senate for two years from 1987. Like Yeats, he declined to attend.

Politically, Friel has always preferred to go in at ground level. In 1980 he founded Field Day, a roving theatre company and supporter of pan- Irish culture, with a distinguished board including Stephen Rea, Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin and Seamus Deane. It annually toured village halls north and south, and allowed Friel to premiere his plays in the most democratic manner. Translations, his masterpiece about the British project to map Ireland and de-Gaelicise its place names, was the inaugural production. Frank Rich, the infamous play-slayer of the New York Times, has written that "Mr Friel makes the Irish condition synonymous with the human one". Translations could be about the imposition of any dominant culture on a vulnerable one.

Like responsible Northern Irish Catholics, the Friels have had five children. It can't be a coincidence that the five-sibling family is almost as much of a fixture in the plays as Ballybeg. Dancing At Lughnasa, his most Chekhovian experiment in mournful plotlessness, may as well be called "Five Sisters". The play loosened his decade-long involvement in Field Day. Noel Pearson had asked if he could mount a new Friel at the Abbey, and a two-acter about a doomed quintet of Donegal spinsters at the dawn of the wireless age duly arrived. "I told him it was going to go all over the world," recalls Pearson, "And he told me I was mad."

The film version is again the result of a request, only this time it took Friel four years to bow to Pearson's badgering. "As Lughnasa was such an important play for him he didn't want the risk of it not working as a movie. Eventually he said, 'Well I'll give you 100 out of ten for persistence. If you really want to do it that badly, go ahead and do it.'" The fictional Tom Connolly highmindedly turns down the windfall from an American university when it is finally offered. Friel is more pragmatic: he may not speak to newspapers, but in other areas he is willing to put an end to his own intransigence. Thus in his 70th year he will find his audience hugely enlarged. Philadelphia, here he comes.

'Give Me Your Answer, Do!' previews at the Hampstead Theatre from Friday 27 March. Box office 0171-722 9301

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