A dollhouse sits alone atop a stool, held by muted white light encasing the perimeter of the Donmar Warehouse’s thrust stage. Pastel green paint washes the entire space, harbouring a quietness that almost announces the imminent break. Warmth emanates through the windows of the miniature construction in shades of gentle yellow.
This careful façade hints that there is something on display which will be deconstructed. As the play progresses, it becomes clear that it is the lives of the inhabitants in one of the last remaining elitist ‘Big Houses’ of Ireland that are being examined. The production follows the O’Donnell family, a Catholic anomaly in a Protestant system, and aims to stress this isolation; borne out of rejection by upper-class Protestant counterparts and a disconnect to the wider Catholic population.
Questioning the cultural value of these estates against their colonial symbolism in a post-Independence Ireland, the play joins the family in 1970’s, as their patriarch is about to depart. This forces the remaining members to weigh their societal worth beyond these sheltered walls.
The dollhouse is used to simulate reality as miniature objects are taken out and treated as the genuine artefact. This is mirrored in the action itself, as characters recount their own versions of history; absorbed within a conceit of their making.
When out of focus, they linger at the back of the stage, contained within a gesture. By doing this, Lindsey Turner allows the audience to observe the family in moments of supposed privacy; their masks receding. Through staging the subtext which drives the play, Turner materialises the complex relationship between veneer and surface beneath.
Aristocrats is flawlessly acted. Continual presence allows the actors space and time to craft their roles with dimensionality. In pure realism, the cast balance each other to hold the space of their shared home. Turner’s production is delicate and polished.
Playing with subtlety, the play emulates the fragility of the truth it seeks to uncover. As a result, the production can sway into dullness. Nuance is pointless when it is too faint to be heard, and herein lies the problem of this production.
Not enough is done to flesh out the importance of the play’s context. Only in prior knowledge of the play or purchase of a programme does this become apparent. The performance should stand on its own, and this dramaturgical failure calls into question the entire relevance of the production. Without clarity of intent, Aristocrats seems to only echo Chekhovian interfamily relations. Amongst excellently performed dialogue, there is no overall focus gripping the action, or the viewer.
Aristocrats is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until Saturday 22 September. For more information and tickets, click here.
Photo: Johan Persson