The Brian Friel Season at Sheffield Theatres is the third time they’ve given over their three stages to a single playwright: in 2010 it was the National Theatre’s favourite social commentator David Hare, and in 2012 is was genre-straddling polymath Michael Frayn. This year they have chosen Friel, often referred to as ‘the Irish Chekhov’ because of the poetic poignancy of his work in which characters find themselves paralysed by circumstance but yearning for another life.
The most famous of his plays is perhaps Dancing at Lughnasa, one of those rare pieces of theatre dominated by female characters. It’s set in the late summer of 1936 in the rural Irish homestead of the Mundy sisters who make-do and mend despite economic privation and unreliable menfolk who drift in and out of their lives. However, Sheffield Theatres haven’t gone with this most obvious of choices in their trio of plays which opens with Afterplay. Responding directly to the Chekhovian connection, the piece imagines a meeting between Sonya, the dutiful niece from Uncle Vanya, and Andrey, the downtrodden intellectual brother of The Three Sisters. It’s a bewitching parlour game idea to bring together two fictional characters and find them twenty years after the curtain call of the original plays. Sonya and Andrey are revived by Niamh Cusack – one of an Irish acting dynasty – and Sean Gallagher, who soap fans might know as Paul Conner in Coronation Street. At fifty minutes, in the intimate setting of the Studio it promises to be an intense and evocative experience.
Friel’s 1980 play Translations is presented in the Crucible, a piece which centres on the arrival of the British Army in Ireland in 1833 to translate Gaelic place names into the King’s English. The political divisiveness of language is mirrored by a love triangle in which farm girl Marie is torn between the affections of a local school teacher and a British Officer, her homeland and the possibility of escape. It’s an irony of course that this play about cultural and linguistic imperialism by an Irish writer is written in English, a fact that Friel himself lamented despite using the dynamism of the English language to its full extent. Though set in the 19th century the play has a biting resonance with contemporary Northern Ireland.
We remain in Ireland for the final piece in the season Wonderful Tennessee, showing at the Lyceum. This 1993 play follows the failed attempt of three couples to get to a small island off the Ballybeg coast, a site of religious pilgrimage, or in their case a birthday celebration for one of the party. When their ferryman fails to arrive they are forced to set up camp at the pier – reminiscing, singing songs, arguing and joking. As the mists rise and alcohol takes hold of the group, their good-natured banter takes a darker tone.
As well as these three main plays, the season also includes play readings from other parts of Friel’s ouvre. The readings are free to attend and programmed at 1pm on weekdays, meaning you can enjoy a particularly cultured lunch hour.
Afterplay runs until 1 March in the Studio.
Translations runs from 13 February to 8 March in the Crucible.
Wonderful Tennessee runs from 27 February to 8 March at the Lyceum.
Full details of the Brian Friel season can be found here: www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/season/the-brian-friel-season