Theatres host season celebrating the life of Brian

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Continuing the tradition of producing whole seasons dedicated to the work of one writer, Sheffield Theatres is putting on three plays by Irish dramatist Brian Friel over the next few weeks across all three stages.

The first is Afterplay which begins previewing in the Crucible Studio next week and features Niamh Cusack from the famous Irish acting dynasty and Sean Gallagher (seen this week on TV’s Silent Witness) in a two-hander.

Set in 1920s Moscow, it imagines a chance meeting between Sonya and Andrey, two characters from plays by Anton Chekhov, in a late night café, as their personas unravel and their true identities are revealed.

The director is Dubliner Róisín McBrinn, now associate director of Sherman Cymru in Cardiff who has neither Friel nor Chekhov on her CV. “That’s what makes this so exciting for me,” she says. “Afterplay is this exceptional chamber piece about these two characters and getting a sense of Chekhov and of Brian Friel has been extremely important in rehearsal.

“Friel has been massively influenced by Chekhov, most directly in the way he did versions of the two plays from which these characters come, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters. The influence goes deeper because he wrote a play called Aristocrats that is clearly a homage to Chekhov or at least its roots are in those great plays.

“It’s brought home to me what a master Chekhov is too. Putting it under the microscope like this is really exciting. I came to Chekhov through Friel whereas in this country it is generally through Michael Frayn and that is important because Friel didn’t just translate it, it’s that idea of dancing with the master, its own tempo. His versions are really enlightening.”

McBrinn, who directed Niamh Cusack in Crestfall, a play by Irish dramatist Mark O’Rowe at the London fringe venue, Theatre 503, says she thought of her straight away for the role of Sonya. “I wasn’t thinking of an Irish actor but she was the right age and I was looking for someone with the right level of humanity and complexity that both these parts demanded. It’s important for this piece that the chamber element is instrumental in this small space for this incredible encounter for them to sing these beautiful songs together,” she says, adding that she is talking figuratively rather than literally - “though Niamh can sing, I can tell you.”

They have the same set designer from Crestfall, Paul Wills.

“We have taken a bit of artistic licence with the set. Hopefully we have extended and enhanced the lyricism of the piece but at the same time we have allowed the characters to sit and talk at a table,” explains the director. “It is going to be end on and hopefully it will feel quite intimate.”

Wills’ last work at the Crucible was designing My Fair Lady and for McBrinn likewise the production is a complete contrast to her recent work. “I did the Christmas show at the Sherman, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty with lots of songs, and a cast of ten, so totally different. Before that was a new version of an Ostrovsky called It’s a Family Affair and although domestic it had a similar scale to it. I have done smallscale work in the past but this feels unique, if I am honest.”

Afterplay, which runs in the Studio from February 6 to March 1. Translations, in the Crucible (February 13 to March 8) and Wonderful Tennessee. in the Lyceum (February 27 to March 8) are supported by a programme of complementary events, talks and readings to capture the breadth of Brian Friel’s work from four decades of his writing career.