Tamara Harvey tells Diane Parkes why she should ignore Meryl Streep’s version of Dancing at Lughnasa.
It was the first time Tamara Harvey had been asked to direct a play in Birmingham and she was fully prepared for rehearsals at the city’s Repertory Theatre.
But with work already underway for the refurbishment of the theatre and the demolition of some of the backstage areas she discovered rehearsals were to take place a few miles down the road – in a former fire station.
Yet the unusual venue has proved to be a huge boon to the pre-performance process. Moseley Old Fire Station is to be home to the new Birmingham Independent School of Performing Arts later this year and is packed full of useful rehearsal rooms.
“It is an amazing space,” says Tamara, who is now four weeks into rehearsals. “The room that they used for the fire engines is so big that it is actually large enough for it to feel like the Rep stage. And then there are lots of smaller rooms where we can do things like dialect coaching.
“But it is literally away from everything. When we are there we are totally focussed on what we are doing.
“None of us are from here so we are actually quite isolated in some ways. We spend all day rehearsing but it isn’t as if we then go back to our everyday lives. This makes it is a very intense experience – it makes it more brightly coloured which is perfect for this play.”
That is because Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa focuses on a family in a remote area of County Donegal in Ireland. Set during the summer of 1936, it tells the tale of the five Mundy sisters who share a home. Also with them at this time is their brother Jack a missionary priest just home from Africa and seven-year-old Michael, the child of one of the sisters, Christina, and the wayward travelling salesman Gerry Evans.
The sisters live a frugal existence with dreams of a better life – a life they experience through their first radio when they hear the dancing music filled with aspirations of love and happiness.
The tale is told through the perspective of Michael but as a grown-up. Although he is present in the story as a child he never actually appears on stage.
Premiered in 1990, Dancing at Lughnasa has played on both Broadway and the West End and was adapted for the cinema with Meryl Streep in 1998.
But Tamara is no fan of the movie.
“I hadn’t seen the film before and then I watched some of it when I knew I was directing this play,” she says. “But it is so colourless, there is just something lacking.
“This is such an intensely theatrical show and it fails to capture that. For example on stage the boy is never seen but he acts as a narrator. In the film he appears as a boy and a narrator and that really affects the theatricality of it. I would say to anyone who has seen it, ignore the film and come and see the play.”
And she feels Friel’s work is a real wonder.
“It is one of the first plays that I read and I loved it then, it so sad and so beautiful,” she says. “But then when I came back to it as an older person I read it with a new perspective.
“It is the story of five sisters and a brother and a lovable rogue who has fathered a son and it seems to be about the everyday existence of a family in remote Donegal. But it is looking at so much more.
“The story is told through the perspective of that child but from the point of view of adulthood. It is how the things that we always believed about the past may not be quite how we believed them. Because when we look back and remember, it may not have happened quite how we remember it. As an adult looking back on childhood you have what you think are very strong memories about pivotal moments in your life but sometimes those memories can be incomplete.
“We can be surprised by memories which we thought we had at our fingertips which actually prove to be deceptive. And when we realise that our memories may be deceiving us the whole world can fall apart.”
When Tamara was asked to direct Dancing at Lughnasa she admits she experienced excitement but also some apprehension.
“This is the second play I have directed of Brian Friel’s. The first one was Lovers when I was 19 and in New York. At the time I had the arrogance of youth but now I am a bit older, I am 32 now, I realise how much there are to these plays.
“Lovers is not dissimilar in that it uses the same technique of having a voice in the play which says ‘I know what happened after this’.
“Friel is brilliant at that. He doesn’t just wait until the end to tell you everything, he is letting you know things all the way through.”
In the cast for the new Rep production are Barry Ward as Michael, Peter Gowen as Father Jack and Penny Layden as the eldest sister Kate. It is designed by Colin Richmond, with lighting by James Farncombe, sound by Matt Mackenzie and choreography by Nick Winston.
And Tamara says working at The Rep is proving to be a very rewarding experience.
“It is wonderful to be working in this theatre. We went on stage, when the set of The Snowman was still on, and you could see what a wonderful theatre space it is. It has a very large stage but still doesn’t lose the immediacy.
“And the technical expertise there are fantastic. That is really important for this show because we have a large stage which means we can really give a feeling of a little house in the middle of a much bigger landscape and that really concentrates the drama.”
* Dancing at Lughnasa, Birmingham Repertory Theatre , Feb 19-Mar 6, tickets: 0121 236 4455, www.birmingham-rep.co.uk