Wednesday, 15 August 2018


Fun fact: the Donmar Warehouse was actually the first theatre venue in London I ever saw a play in. The production was called Red and it was back in 2009 with Eddie Redmayne and Alfred Molina. It was my first experience in such an intimate theatre (I'd previously only watched more lavish productions such as Les Misérables in Australia) and I remember feeling fascinated at being so close to the actors and seeing how they acted their socks off with such minimal props and fanfare. Naturally it's now stuck with me as my favourite theatre venue and since then I've returned to see countless plays there. Imagine my pleasant surprise and delight when the Donmar newsletter pinged into my inbox with the announcement of a production of Aristocrats with a cast that included my favourite actor, David Dawson. Okay, perhaps those were too gentle a choice of words to paint an accurate picture as I was literally bouncing off the walls of the house like a broken pogo-stick that morning. It's almost been three years since I last saw David on stage in The Dazzle, and that production has since cemented itself as my favourite play of all time. I was beyond excited to see him return to the stage and also to return to the Donmar Warehouse.

I'm not familiar with Brian Friel's work as a playwright though I've heard that another of his plays has been getting rave reviews at the National Theatre. Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to see that one though it's probably also fairer that I don't have anything to compare Aristocrats to. The play tells the story of the four O'Donnell siblings, part of a once grand Irish Catholic family, who have just reunited in their father's home of Ballybeg Hall for their youngest sister's wedding. Their father (a former judge) seems to be elderly and ill now, only his voice can be heard, full of authority but barking nonsense through the baby monitor. The eldest daughter Judith (Eileen Walsh) is the most sensible out of the four, housebound to look after their father and a woman of few words though it is later revealed that she had an illegitimate child that her father forced to put in an orphanage. Alice (Elaine Cassidy) lives a comfortable life in London with her husband Eamon, she has a drinking problem and her marriage is rather unhappy. Casimir (David Dawson), the only son, dropped out of law school and now works in a sausage factory in Germany. He constantly talks about his German wife and children though we aren't sure if they actually exist as apparently none of the family have ever seen them. The youngest, Claire (Aisling Loftus), whose wedding is what initially draws the family back together, is marrying a grocer who's much older than her. She plays piano at home all the time as she had dreamt to be a concert pianist though her father disallowed her to pursue it. The O'Donnell's past and secrets are steadily unravelled by Tom Huffnung, an American scholar who has come to the house to study the dying Irish aristocracy. 

I love seeing how the Donmar's small space is transformed with every single production and Es Devlin's stage design does not disappoint. It's simple and un-convoluted, much like I found the Aristocrats storyline to be, with a doll's house as the primary prop, a gorgeous sage green light washing over the entire stage and a back wall that gradually peels and scratches off as we delve further into the family's past, finally revealing a beautiful painting of Ballybeg Hall in it's heyday. As I mentioned, I found the play quite easy to follow even though it's dialogue heavy. The actors carry this production and truthfully they are all brilliant though I think I speak for the majority of the audience when I say that David Dawson is the stand out. I can honestly say I'm never a biased reviewer but David's portrayal of Casimir is just pitch perfect, and I feel like his character is given a lot of the dialogue and action in the play, thus effectively holding the entire narrative together like glue. He's the life of the party, recalling (imaginary?) childhood stories about their past aristocratic life, enthusiastically playing games with Claire, a constant ball of jittery energy and charm that draws the audience inwards. But the moments when Casimir breaks, we are already in too deep. Anyway, I often wonder what it's like to act with David Dawson. Every play I've seen him in, he has easily outshone everyone else on the stage with his intense performances and I truly believe that you haven't experienced acting if you haven't seen David Dawson act. 

Praises for the main man aside, I really enjoyed all the other performances too. As I said, it's a very character driven play with so many interesting personalities. I recently saw Elaine Cassidy in another Donmar production called Les Liaisons dangereuses which she was also great in. Her character here is very different though and she spent a lot of time on the side of the stage where I was sitting so it was almost unnerving for me to be just a couple of centimetres from some of her scenes. Aisling Loftus' portrayal also had me relating a fair bit to Claire, I'm not sure what that says about me as a person but a play is always more effective when you can relate to a character or two. The play is split into two parts with the second act taking a much sadder turn. I've always been a bit of a crybaby when it comes to any emotional turn out, whether it be in film, television, or theatre. In saying this, I revel and often find quite a lot of beauty in sadness, especially in art. I had expected this play to be quite somber from the synopsis and what I heard from others that had seen it before me. In the end, I didn't find it had ripped out my heart strings as I had initially assumed it would (perhaps more of a gentle tugging). It was no Dazzle in the way that it didn't actually make me shed any physical tears (even though seeing David cry as any character, never fails to trigger me). I'm uncertain whether this is because I didn't relate to the characters as much and therefore lacked the empathy to feel, whether I didn't quite catch the societal relevance of the decay of Ireland's Big Houses whilst I was watching it, or whether this production wasn't fleshed out enough in what felt like quite a short running time. Still, it's a very minor downside for me and I still enjoyed it as such that I would definitely love to see it again. Believe me, David Dawson is worth the ticket price alone.

Aristocrats is at the Donmar Warehouse until the 22nd of September and tickets can be found here.


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