With the myth of Phaedra as its subtext, this UK première of Friel’s Living Quarters toys with concepts of free will, divine judgement and personal choice. Rather than adopt Racine’s more brutal interpretation of the legend, Friel cleverly introduces an impartial arbiter, a character extraneous to the real action of the plot, known only as 'Sir'.
As Sir courteously explains at the start of the play, the excellent revolving set can be not only thought of as a wonderfully naturalistic house and garden but as the space inhabited by the minds of all those involved in the unfolding events. While the Butler family have all gone their separate ways, their mental attempts to understand or justify the acts of themselves and others at particular moments in time on the same day lead them back to this space, prompting not only discoveries on the nature of human tragedy, but also the phenomenon of the human ability for introspection and self-analysis.
While the events between the Butlers and their patriarch’s child-bride unfold, actual and imagined pasts interweave and combine to give each a chance to evaluate their own behaviour, at the same time never moving far away enough from the action to alienate or confuse the audience. Friel’s lyrical, poetic writing provides the depth of meaning that would otherwise be lacking in a piece with such clinically psychoanalytical implications.
As with Enda Walsh’s Fringe smash hit The Walworth Farce, Friel explores the Irish literary preoccupation with reworking the past to see where it began to crumble – here exemplified by his character Father Tom Carty (Gary Lilburn). Father Tom is initially desperate to prove to Sir that he is capable of playing out a different role in the reprisal of the tale of the Butler family. But while patriarch and war-hero Frank Butler confidently states – like the warrior Theseus himself – that he would not and could not have behaved any differently, Father Tom struggles and fails to prevent Frank’s final, desperate act. As the sole representative of the church, this raises questions about Friel’s own thoughts about free will – although as Father Tom urges, since it is always possible to repent to the Lord, there is always a choice.
Featuring classy acting by a strong cast, John Dove’s production is not only a thought-provoking, but also a thoroughly enjoyable production.