As in many of his works, Friel had drawn upon autobiography. But Lughnasa, more than most, pantomines the revered writer's life - in this case, a poignant and gentle paean to his mother's maiden aunts, filtered through his exquisite understanding of characters stranded with unrealized dreams, who nevertheless reach a state of courage and grace. Out of 'piety' for the women upon which they are based, each bears the name of its real-life counterpart.
An overwhelmed Pearson ventured to predict that the play would premiere in Dublin, then move on to success in London's West End, New York's Broadway and eventually to the screen as a motion picture. Quite frankly, an amused Friel offered that Pearson's 'left foot' had gone to his head (in 1990, Pearson's production of My Left Foot had received both BAFTA and Academy Award nominations, and eventually earned Daniel Day Lewis an Oscar).
Dancing at Lughnasa opened at The Abbey in April 1990 to instant acclaim, eventually duplicating that success, first at The British National Theatre (autumn 1990) and then at The Phoenix in London (spring 1991). Pearson moved the play to Broadway in October 1991, where it received eight Tony nominations, winning three (including Best Play). That same year, the play also garnered coveted Olivier and Evening Standard Awards in the United Kingdom.
Despite the play's overwhelming international recognition, Friel resisted its transference to the screen until October 1996. In fact, none outside his first play, Philadelphia Here I Come, over twenty years earlier, had been ever been adapted for the screen. He relented just as Pearson had finished collaborating on a script with noted playwright Frank McGuinness. (Pearson had produced McGuinness' 1993 Tony Award-winning play, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me). McGuinness enthusiastically accepted Pearson's offer to adapt Dancing at Lughnasa, and the screenplay was completed by April 1997. "[Film] is a different medium, so we had to start from scratch, virtually. As they say 'taking it out'", reflects Pearson. "We needed someone that could take it out without losing the essence of what made the play work in the first place, and I think Frank has done that." Commenting on his first reading of the script, Michael Gambon would later state, "it is a work of art".
A month later, pre-production commenced with Pearson's long-time friend, admired director Pat O'Connor (Cal, Circle of Friends and Inventing the Abbotts, among others). Brid Brennan was immediately enlisted to reprise the role of Agnes, for which she received a Tony Award. "She's just wonderful," says Pearson. "And the camera just loves her. I knew we must get her." Pearson, O'Connor, McGuinness and casting director Mary Selway combined their talents and relationships to assemble the remainder of the film's powerfully eloquent cast: Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon (since knighted), Catherine McCormack, Kathy Burke, Sophie Thompson and Rhys Ifans.
Invisibly, Dancing at Lughnasa reveals not only the fully-individual natures of the five Mundy sisters, but also those of the three men in their lives: the communal illegitimate son Michael, Christina's always unexpected lover Gerry, and the blissfully shamed priest-brother Jack. Crucially, it fully captures the unique relationships between each of them. "Something's happened in Africa," says Gambon of his otherworldly character. "He's been thrown out of the church, I think, and sent home to Ireland. And he doesn't arrive in a big way. He arrives on a bus. That's an indication of what he's reached. So I think he's just gone native. He loves the people of Africa, and it's a tragedy for him to be sent home."
Of the unbreakable and ill-fated bond between Agnes and Rose, Brennan ventures, "I think Agnes is a woman who's longing for a relationship and for love. But I feel that she would probably love to have a child and Rose is as close to that as she's got." "The interesting thing about this piece is that a lot of it is about women without men," observes Streep. "Ireland was very affected by emigration. A lot of men left to make money or to make their lives elsewhere, and so the remaining men were prized in a certain way. I thought it was very elegantly written, and presented the rare opportunity to work in an ensemble of mostly women. A story about people that would have ordinarily been neglected." Kathy Burke distills what is the power and, at the same time, the unfortunate frailty of the Mundy sisters bond. "There's five sisters and every now and again we always think there's another one missing. It really feels like there should be another sister there. I think that's just the general loneliness that all the sisters feel. That even though they all look out for each other, there's someone missing from them all, and maybe that's the men in their lives." Tragically, it is the men who are so unconditionally loved who threaten the stability of the household; the shame of Michael's birth, the secret of Jack's return which is, in essence, a form of exile in being sent home.
Or, in the case of the unreliable lover Gerry, a harbinger of disquieting forces. "I think he symbolises the outside world, as such," according to Rhys Ifans, who embodies the role. "He visits this quite primative cottage on what was then an advanced piece of technology - a motorbike. And he's been in Dublin teaching modern dances like foxtrots and what have you. As opposed to the traditional dances the sisters know, so I think he represents another world, an urban world."
On working with this impressive group of women: "It was noticeable from early on how they've bonded. They're like the Spice Girls in tweed." While each of the creative elements was drawn to a work from Ireland's most prolific playwright, and joined in Ireland to share the vision of an Irish director, an Irish producer and an Irish screewriter, the result is fluidly international. A story that could have taken place anywhere, as though humanity is captured in that single cottage. "It's a story about sadness and happiness and optimism and hopes being fulfilled and destroyed," muses director Pat O'Connor. "It's not a very interesting thing to make a film that's specific and understood in only one place. If you're dealing with people, you're dealing about the human race. The way these actors make the characters their own because they're talented and they feel the story, even though they're British, Irish and American." And exquisite stories need not be restrained by time. "I don't think the human heart changes in any time," says Streep. "Fortunately or unfortunately, we haven't changed."
Principal photography commenced on August 19, 1997 in a portrait-perfect range of Ireland, commissioned by Ireland's Department of Heritage and Culture, and a nearby village (with the amusingly talismanic name of Hollywood) which dates back nearly 1200 years. Shooting also included stages at Ardmore Studios, which is at the forefront of Ireland's cinematic renaissance. Sony Pictures Classics championed the production from its nascent script stage, and will proudly release the film in North America in November.
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