A sense of foreboding hangs over Friel’s drama about five adult sisters living in County Donegal. Narrated by Michael, the son of one of those sisters, from 40 years in the future, the fate of the women is already known to him, and gradually it becomes known to the audience too. But first Michael paints a picture of their life in the summer of 1936, showing us a time when they were a definite, yet fragile family unit, scraping a living in a rural area about to be radically changed by industrialisation.
Anna Mackmin’s production relies on the interaction and balance between the five sisters. All past their youth, but not yet quite resigned to spinsterhood, each struggles individually with the clash between their dreams and their reality. Michelle Fairley’s Kate is the elder sibling, a school teacher, devout Christian and the matriarch of the family, struggling to keep them together yet knowing, silently, that as she does so, life is passing them by. Maggie (Niamh Cusack) is the family joker, suppressing every trauma with a laugh and a dance. Only once does her facade slip, as she learns that an old school friend who left Ireland has achieved things that Maggie privately yearns for.
While Maggie and Kate seem hardened enough by life not to expect their dreams to be achievable, the younger pair, Agnes and Rose, still think that a better life awaits them, if only one where they can go to the local harvest festival and catch the eye of a local man. Though that is an ill-advised path already trodden by Christina – played by Andrea Corr in her stage debut – a naive, sweet woman who was charmed into bed by Welshman Gerry (Jo Stone-Fewings), a well-meaning cad who will never comprehend the consequences of his actions. Left with a son, Michael, out of wedlock, Christina’s story poignantly illustrates the theme of the piece – that women in that time, that place, cannot expect much from life.
Lez Brotherston creates a pocket of farmland in the Old Vic. A huge tree dominates the grassy stage, its dead branches reflecting the dying way of life that the sisters maintain in their modest, shabby home. The scene is given an almost dream-like status by the fact that the adult Michael (Peter McDonald), ever present on stage, is showing us a piece of his memory. As we see this snippet of the sisters’ lives, we already know that it no longer exists.
There is also a spiritual quality to Friel’s play which surrounds the character of Jack (Finbar Lynch), the sisters’ brother who has returned to Ireland after decades working in Uganda. The life that he has experienced is so alien and so detached from theirs that it is seen as a threat by Kate, who needs him to return him to the Christian ways they are used to. Perhaps, in fact, it is too much of a reminder for her of the adventures life could have brought them all, in another time and another place.