Having enjoyed the Royal and Derngate’s production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa last year, I thought it would be a good opportunity to discover more of his writing by making a trip up to Sheffield for their Brian Friel Season. Mrs Chrisparkle and I made a weekend of it and invited our friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters.
Wonderful Tennessee is a play that almost defies description. It’s a play with music – but distinctly not a musical. Its setting in the beautiful Lyceum Theatre, which I associate with the panto and the big touring shows, is maybe a little misplaced. It’s a very introverted play and would probably have suited the intimate and slightly claustrophobic atmosphere of the Crucible Studio better. When you enter the auditorium you are greeted by the view of the quayside of Ballybeg (Friel’s fictional town where the majority of his plays are set), nicely jutting out into the auditorium at a quirky angle so that they have to sacrifice the front three rows of seats. Ballybeg pier is so identical visually to the pier in last summer’s Cripple of Inishmaan that I had to check whether it’s the same designer. It isn’t. We’re lulled into a false sense of security with the traditional relaxing seaside sounds of seabirds and waves, which mentally prepares you for some romantic Erin idyll; but that’s not what the play delivers.
In a nutshell, three couples have come to Ballybeg armed with lavish picnic baskets and an accordion to celebrate the birthday of their apparently most successful member, turf accountant Terry; and it’s Terry’s wish that they all take a boat that will magically appear by virtue of Mr Carlin, local boatsman, to visit the mysterious island Draíochta for an overnight camp and then back to reality the next day. The next two hours are filled with the characters revealing that they are, on the whole, not as happy as they make out, as Friel gets them to tell stories, revive ancient rituals, and even re-enact some aspects of an unexplained murder that happened on the island in the past.
The whole production is littered with enough distancing effects to make Bertolt Brecht blush. Right at the very beginning of the play you hear the off-stage conversations of the arriving day-trippers as they make their way from their car, driven by Terry’s chauffeur Charlie, on to the quay. I wish I had timed how long it takes for members of the cast finally to appear on stage. That off-stage conversation went on and on and on. Not all the words were clearly audible, you could sometimes only get an impression of the kind of things they were saying. It was a remarkably effective distancing effect, so much so that when cast members did finally appear on stage I was already finding myself irked by the production.
The interspersing of the action with songs on the accordion is straight out of Mother Courage; and the songs themselves seem anachronistic. They’re the kind of songs your grandparents, or even their parents, might have sung. We don’t actually know when Wonderful Tennessee is set – it was originally produced in 1993, but was it meant to be contemporary? The murder on the island that appears to have taken place due to some religious frenzy is said to be in the 1930s, so, one assumes, it’s somewhere between the 30s and the 90s. “I want to be happy” and “Happy Days are Here Again”, both sung early on by Angela, are from the 1920s. Terry has a 1920s bottle of whiskey, the implication of which is that it’s probably expensive and has been maturing nicely for some time. On the other hand, Frank only wears Hawaii shirts which might suggest the 60s or 70s onwards, and Angela’s outfit is fairly hippy. So even the dating of the play is not straightforward, and makes it feel somehow even more elusive.
There are also many allusions to other plays and writers. Friel is a true Chekhov man; not only are his plays likened to Chekhov but he is also a significant translator of his work. We all felt that the island was the equivalent of the Three Sisters’ Moscow – life would be hugely better if you could get there but it just ain’t ever gonna happen. The unexpected savagery of the attack on Terry by his friends when they want him to leave his shirt behind reminded me of Lord of the Flies. Carlin, the ever absent boatsman for whom they wait and wait is a Godot character, and the rather pointless timewasting of the six characters has a lot of the Vladimir and Estragon about them. Interestingly, the play follows the classical unities, in that it all takes place in one location, all within the same 24 hours, all dealing with one theme – and any interesting activity takes place off stage and gets reported.
It’s a very static play – there is very little dramatic intensity on stage to nourish the audience. The characters occupy their own little bubbles and they slowly resituate themselves at the front or the back of the stage depending on whether or not they’ve got any lines to say. The only dramatic moments are the final few seconds of Act one and when everyone turns on Terry to rip his shirt off. And if you’re trying to identify exactly what aspect of the human condition Friel is trying to explain to us – well I’m not sure I can really help you. Our matinee audience was quite small and of our party only the Countess didn’t nod off. At one stage I noticed that the three people sitting separately in the row in front of us were all asleep. It’s that kind of play.
There are some very good performances – right from the start, I really enjoyed Cathy Belton as Berna, Terry’s mentally unstable and long suffering wife, quietly begging him to be released from the weekend of “fun”, and finding all the relentless attention of their friends and family excruciatingly painful. After she’s made her very dramatic point at the end of Act One, it’s as though she has finally committed an assertive act and she starts to blend in with everyone else. As she blends in, her husband Terry (Dermot Kerrigan) begins to become alienated, with his confession that he too is as much of a failure as the rest of them, and I enjoyed Mr Kerrigan’s portrayal of a character both bumptiously confident and privately vulnerable. Trish – Terry’s sister (I think – there’s something about the relationships within this play that doesn’t stick in your head) – is played disarmingly innocently by Melanie McHugh; part airhead, part savante; she can’t remember which county she’s in but she knows how many beans make five. Andrea Irvine makes an imposing Angela, loved by both her husband and Terry, all sweetness and light when it suits her and then laying down the law like the bossy teacher she probably is in the classroom. Jean-Paul van Cauwelaert (a veritable European Community of a name) nicely captures Frank’s well-meaning ineffectuality and Luke Carver Goss is a quietly dignified George, always ready to accompany the others on the accordion; vocally challenged through some unnamed medical condition that doesn’t look like it’s going to end well. When he wants to explode emotionally (like everyone else does eventually) he does it through the power of his instrument.
This really is a most strange play. Not without merits, and in many ways captivatingly fascinating, but it also deeply irritated me. The Brechtian devices work so well that it’s impossible to identify with the characters and therefore doesn’t satisfy at all on the emotional level. There are some puzzles there in the story that might stimulate you cerebrally but I came away from the play slightly resentful of it and distinctly exhausted by it.
PS At least Milord Liverpool was extremely pleased to bump into Miss McHugh later in the evening in the rather crowded Crucible Corner bar so he could tell her he really enjoyed her performance. Her look of total delight suggested that not many people might have said that yet.