Interview: On directing Dancing at Lughnasa

Grace Murray 1 December 2015

Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel’s play about five sisters living in rural Ireland in 1936, opens at Corpus Playroom on Tuesday 1st December. TCS spoke to the director, Enrico Hallworth, to find out more about his production.

For those who aren’t familiar with the play, can you give us a brief synopsis?

It’s the story of five sisters living in the very isolated town of Ballybeg in Ireland. They’ve almost formed a community of their own, and as the play progresses you start to feel that the pressures of the outside world are bearing down on them. It’s narrated as a series of flashbacks by one of their grown-up children, whom we’ve swapped from Michael to Michaela.

The play really kickstarts with the arrival of their brother and Michaela’s father, Jack, who left years ago to be a missionary, and returns home very ill with malaria. It’s the story of two days over a period of three weeks in the sisters’ lives, as you see the really funny and loving atmosphere amongst them. They joke and care for each other and lift each other’s spirits, but all the while they discuss the rumours they’ve heard from town, and you get the sense that this really lovely communal way of life is on the brink of collapse.

How have you brought the setting of rural Ireland to the Playroom?

I think the Playroom actually works really well for this poor rural household, especially because the stage is split between a garden and a tiny, cramped kitchen, in which everyone is forced to speak over each other and stand very close together at all times. Then using the aisles to lead up to the outside world has helped to create this sense of a very enclosed space onstage.

How has swapping Michael to Michaela changed the dynamics of the play?

Obviously we’ve had a few people who’ve asked, “How is that going to work?” But it gives the household, the sisters and the daughter, a much more maternal atmosphere, and you can see Michaela imitating her aunts and her mother more obviously. It’s also a female community and the outside world is very male, and the two people who arrive at the house are both men, both – in different senses – fathers, and both patriarchal figures. I think it makes Michaela a bigger part of that insular community.

What was the most challenging aspect of directing the show?

Partially, getting our heads round the space and the split audience, but it’s also been a challenge to encapsulate the full depth of each of the characters. What makes this play so well-written is that you see such a range of emotions from every character you meet: for example, the eldest sister, who is stern and uptight and tells the others off, has moments of vulnerability when she’s alone. It’s been a great play to work on for that reason.

Can you give us a one sentence reason why we should see it?

It’s deeply moving, but also upliftingly funny – it balances the comic and the tragic, and it can’t be narrowed down to either.

Dancing at Lughnasa is running at 7pm on Tuesday 1st – Saturday 5th December 2015 at Corpus Playroom.