Exploring the greatest new and classic plays


The Mundy sisters
Dancing at Lughnasa 
National Theatre May 2023
Photo by Johan Persson


063 – Dancing at Lughnasa, by Brian Friel

May 24, 2023 | Podcast Episodes | 0 comments

Brian Friels’ magical memory play, Dancing at Lughnasa, is set at the time of the Irish festival of Lughnasa, when traditional pagan celebrations marked thanksgiving for the harvest. The festival in question takes place in the summer of 1936 in the fictional village of Ballybeg, where the five unmarried Mundy sisters live. The events of that summer are recounted to us as the long-ago memories of the seven-year old son of one of the sisters; memories that are possibly unreliable, but are also funny and poetic and profoundly poignant.

Friel has been called the ‘Irish Chekhov’, partly because many of his plays, like Dancing at Lughnasa, take place in the same rural setting, where he charts the nuances of family dynamics against the backdrop of a defined time and culture. Friel wrote Dancing at Lughnasa at the peak of his career in 1990, in the period when he worked with the Field Day theatre company and produced his other masterpieces Translations and Faith Healer. Loyal listeners will recognise that we covered the latter in episode 43 of the podcast: listen here.

As we record this episode, Dancing at Lughnasa is playing on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre in a gorgeous new production directed by Josie Rourke. I am thrilled to have the privilege to talk with Josie about this spellbinding play.

PS. Coincidentally, Oliver Soden, our guest in our last episode on Noël Coward’s Private Lives volunteered Dancing at Lughnasa as one of his favourite plays, and recommended it for the podcast. We’re delighted to be able to do so Oliver!

Josie Rourke

Josie Rourke is an acclaimed theatre and film director, and the former Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse and the Bush Theatre in London.

During her time at the Bush she programmed early work from some of our best playwrights, including James Graham, Lucy Kirkwood, Nick Payne, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne.

During her tenure as the first female Artistic Director at the Donmar between 2012 and 2019, there were a great many notable productions, including Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeare Trilogy, Mark Gatiss in The Recruiting Officer, Tom Hiddleston in Corialanus, and Conor McPherson’s The Weir, which also transferred to the West End. Likewise her production of Les Liaison Dangereuse in 2015 transferred to both the West End and Broadway. Other credits at the Donmar include: Saint Joan, Measure for Measure, Sweet Charity, The Vote, The Machine, and Privacy.

Other directing includes Much Ado About Nothing, with Davis Tennant and Catherine Tate; the musical City of Angels; and Men Should Weep at the National Theatre.

Her most recent theatre credits include As You Like It at the new Soho Place theatre in December last year, and Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons starring Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman in the West End earlier this year.

She has also directed the film Mary Queen of Scots, starring Sercha Ronan and Margot Robbie, which earned BAFTA and Oscar award nominations. Her last screen project was Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads with Jodie Comer.

Recommended Play

Josie recommended two plays: The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare,
and 2nd May 1997 by JackThorne.

Josie Rourke in rehearsal at the National Theatre
Photo by Manuel Harlan

Photo © Marc Brenner
We have footnotes for this episode …

The Footnotes to our episode on Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa include more on the meaning of dancing in the play, as well as some observations on the characters of Kate and Father Jack.

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