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REVIEW: Living Quarters by Brian Friel (Tobacco Factory Theatres and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory)

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September 24, 2015 by David

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LQ_HIGH RES CHOICE-photo by Camilla Adams05

I’m a sucker for stories within stories, plays within plays, doubtful narrators – chuck in a bit of structural adventurousness and I’m usually quite a forgiving (and probably slightly geeky) audience member, even if the content being expressed has its weaknesses. There’s something hugely enticing about plays that show a desire to break apart conventional forms and, in doing so, reveal something about the human condition that other more traditional storytelling might not be able to articulate.

So it is to some extent with Living Quarters, a 1977 script from Brian Friel given only one previous brief airing in the UK but landing here in Bristol 38 years later under the (as usual) meticulous directorial hand of Andrew Hilton: an individual probably best known for being at the helm of the ever-popular Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory seasons.

The play opens with a man known only in the programme (I discover later) as ‘Sir’, introducing a group of characters who ‘meet’ at regular intervals to replay a series of shared events that took place over one day and night in their collective pasts. They do this of their own volition – Sir is merely there to keep them all on track – but each in the vain hope of finding either deeper understanding of these moments or (even more vain) perhaps changing what has since been recorded and written into their life histories. This hapless notion is given concrete form via Sir’s ‘leger’, into which he continues to delve at intervals through the play to check that the players are on track with events.

Luigi Pirandello’s early 20th-century experiments immediately come to mind (also referenced in the programme) and ultimately, upon reflection, the form Friel chooses in and of itself is less innovative than one might initially believe. Yes it’s a challenge to get your head around at first, but the clues are drip-fed in through the evening, until you’ve reconciled yourself with the fact that each of them is in reality now completely isolated, but continually revisiting the events the play charts in an attempt to better understand their role and others’ in how they came to pass. When you take that puzzle away, what’s left felt largely derivative and I didn’t really feel the promise of the form was matched in the way it expressed the content.

To be honest, I felt the 38 years of age in the tone of the writing: there’s something rarified, overly-neat, a little contrived about this family set-up and its Greeks-meets-Tennessee-Williams-meets-realism contrivances that will inevitably bring about a tragic end. The arguably comparable form of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of An Author questions the notion of representation and identity right to the core of the play – here, the potential of the form to unpack the subtleties and ambiguities of memory and recollection is left to asides and cut-aways which feel stilted rather than fluid. In the end, whilst there’s a time-limited engagement in working out the rules here, the most enjoyable moments of the production were when we were simply watching dramatic action unfold without the over-arching theatrical layers.

(Production Photo Credit: Camilla Adams)

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