Theatre Review: Lovers, Winners and Losers

Lovers: Winners and Losers - Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Written by Brian Friel
Director: Emma Jordan
Cast: Helena Bereen. Charlie Bonner. Ruby Campbell. Thomas Finnegan. Abigail McGibbon. Carol Moore
The Lyric Theatre, Belfast
19 May 2018

Brian Friel's 1967 two-part play, Lovers, can be a bit of a challenge to stage. It's not that it's a lesser a work than Philadelphia Here I Come! and it's not that the content and its view of Irish social and religious attitudes has dated all that much. In some parts of the world, probably still not too far away from the fictional Ballymore in Co. Tyrone, the two couples from very different ages and backgrounds would be likely to experience similar prejudices and obstacles against their unions, but there is certainly still a necessity to try to find a way to make what are in reality two separate short plays connect and still feel relevant.

Well, you don't need much more contemporary relevance than to look at the debate in the south of the island of Ireland around the referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Abortion Bill, even if the result of that is unlikely to have any immediate impact in the northern communities where Joe and Mag and Andy and Hanna and Brian Friel hail from. The issues around freedom of choice and the restrictions imposed by religion and by small community attitudes are still being aired in those debates today, exposing just how ingrained they are into Irish society, and how heavily they weigh on the life choices that have to made, but by the same token they also reveal how brilliantly Friel never lets those issues overpower the spark of warmth, humour and love of life that lies at the heart of the individuals and the couples in his play.

In fact, were you not aware of the unspoken implications, you'd find the actual interaction between a young couple in 'Winners' to be deceptively light-hearted and entertaining. 17 year old Joe and Mag have climbed the hill overlooking the town of Ballymore to do a bit of studying for their upcoming exams, but the discussion between them - mainly on the part of Mag it has to be said - turns to a more dreamy consideration of the kind of life they will have when they get married in three weeks' time. And the reason for them getting married at this tender age before they are even out of school is because Mag is pregnant. And that makes all the difference.

It makes all the difference because, although you wouldn't know it from the manner in which they conduct themselves - playful and mocking one minute, serious and committed the next - Mag being pregnant outside marriage is a big deal. Both in fact have already been expelled from school and so the choices they face are very real and even critical ones that will define and determine the rest of their lives. You get the impression that they aren't even really aware of the enormity and severity of their position, but they know it very well. And so does the audience, because the play also has two narrators who reveal, in between scenes, that the two were reported missing soon after the events we witness in the play and that two bodies were later found drowned in the nearby lake, whether by accident or intent, we can never know.

The love story of Joe and Mag inevitably takes on an entirely different complexion with this knowledge; becoming a story of young love that is looking towards the dream of a future that they can never have. It's not a device to elicit emotion or pathos, but rather it focusses the audience into experiencing every last moment the two of them have together, looking even for clues that they might be coming to an awareness of the reality that the future holds for them. There are signs, Joe abandoning the idea that he will be able to go to study in London when he knows he will have a family to provide for (the reality of gender politics also very evident in their discussions), but even in choosing to live their future now in the moment can also suggest that they know that they will never live it in reality. The now is all there is, and to a greater or lesser extent that it true for all of us.

'Losers', by comparison, is a much more overtly comic work, but it has its own way of encapsulating a whole worldview that is caught up in restrictive, limiting small town social and religious attitudes that view everything, weight up behaviours and never tolerates, forgives or forgets any challenge to its authority. Andy and Hanna are in their 40s, but the thrill and excitement of powerful sexual attraction is just as fresh for them as it is for the young lovers of Winners ...and just as frowned upon by strict ideas about what is socially acceptable. Obliged to do their 'courting' at home, their attempts to live their own lives is hampered by Hanna's mother's devotion to St. Philomena, her sheer malevolent bloody-mindedness (for someone so religious), and simply a calculated controlling manipulation. Never has the ringing of a bell from her bedroom at a suspicious silence ever sounded so intimidating...

...or amusing, since Hanna and Andy have had to come up with elaborate schemes like the recitation of poetry during their lovemaking to at least temporarily allay the old woman's scheming suspicious mind and interfering ways. Andy knows that they can't keep that up forever and resorts - unwisely - to attacking the mother right at the root of the problem, by casting aspersions on the firmly held religious beliefs that are the foundation of her nature or perhaps just the justification she and others like her assume as justification to assert their own ways, beliefs and control over everyone else.

There is definitely a sense in Lovers: Winners and Losers of it being an early play by a writer exploring, observing and documenting the people of the world he knows and their particular ways. Friel's ear for dialogue, language and character however is beautifully observed, and lovingly warm, expressive and humorous, regardless of the often very serious issues he has obviously has with small-mindedness. As a playwright however, there's much more craft and insight here in Friel's writing that goes beyond mere observation. What elevates both stories is a sense - that Chekhovian element that Friel has often been associated with - of encapsulating a situation and relationships within a framework where the idea of time plays a vital role.

Even though there's a narrative voice that steps outside the drama and looks in on it - an older Andy in Losers, two narrators in Winners - it's not used as a distancing effect, but a way of focussing. It's a technique that provides context and some degree of commentary, lifting the stories out of being merely period or anecdotal and instead addressing a deeper more universal quality that will never date. In some respects then one of the more general interpretative elements of a director's work is largely done for them, but that doesn't mean that a director's input is negligible, not least in the vitally important area here of tone where humour and seriousness are applied in equal measure and often simultaneously, and there's a balance to be struck between what is said on the surface expressions and the social commentary that lies behind them.

Emma Jordan's direction is perfectly judged in all those important aspects. There is a simple division between above and below in the set designs that make that separation visible. In Winners, it's Joe and Mag high above the rest of the world, looking down on a society that they want to be separate and different from. In Losers, it's the old lady who is above exercising control and authority over poor Andy and Hanna down below, keeping them in their place and thereby determining the direction their lives will take. The connections between the two parts of the play are well-established then, but there is also some effort to try to capture that melancholic Chekhovian sense of fate, for the ways and behaviours of families, communities that exert such an influence beyond the ability of the individual to control.

Just as importantly as a play, the language and tone of Lovers: Winners and Losers relies very much on the direction, interpretation and performance of a small cast to bring the wonderful writing to life. More than it just being about individual performances, there is also due consideration given to the roles that men and women play in the society depicted here; the men more initially more voluble, practical minded and ambitiously challenging the world around them but quietly submitting to authority, the women more idealistic or perhaps more realistic, believing that they can find a way to work with the system as a couple, since there is no viable alternative outside it. The performances of a fine cast capture all those elements perfectly, with Charlie Bonner as Andy in particular managing to establish a conspiratorial connection with the audience that makes his and Hanna's spirit of defiance and its eventual capitulation seem just as tragic as Joe and Mag's.

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