Performances by Brian Friel

Performances is a brief, haunting exploration of Leoš Janáček's love for a young married woman, Kamila Stösslová, told through excerpts from his letters to her and the performance of his String Quartet no 2, ‘Intimate Letters’. The conceit is that young doctoral student Anezka Ungrova (Masha Dakič) is researching the influence of Stösslová on the music, and her work is dramatized as a series of conversations with the composer and with musicians performing the piece.

The set is constructed within Magee’s Great Hall to represent an early twentieth-century drawing room with a piano, a work-table, and three long windows at the back; the setting is Janáček’s home in Brno. The windows are opaque for most of the performance, but are lit at key points to dimly reveal the musicians playing the first and second movements, and – in the final moments – to show fragmented images of a woman in the costume of the 1920s. The set is beautifully lit by Conleth White. Its illusive quality supports the flexible sense of time within the performance. In the fictional world Janáček is already long dead, while the quartet and the young scholar are clearly of the present time; but their communication with each other is in the metaphysical realm of art and is not tied to a material sense of time.

This play, which premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2003, is not often performed. Its brevity seems to demand that it be staged in a double-bill, and it ideally requires actors who can play music and musicians who can act. Reviews of the work at its premiere include comments on the musicians’ discomfort with speaking lines, while some of Janáček’s speeches are delivered while he is at the piano, playing. Happily, Dunbar’s production has solved this problem by casting Allan Corduner, who can play the piano, as Janáček, and having the Brodsky Quartet perform the roles of the musicians. The musicians engage in dialogue with both Janáček and Anezka, entering and exiting the space as they gather and prepare to perform, clearly very comfortable with their acting roles.

The first two movements are performed off-stage, with the musicians visible through the windows. The play doesn’t demand that the final, longer movement is played but Dunbar chose to include it, bringing the musicians upstage for these final minutes. Its passion and its abrupt conclusion – which seems to hint at the inexpressible nature of Janáček’s love and longing – are illustrated by the hazy images, through the misty glass, of the young woman Anezka / Kamila dressing in her coat and hat, preparing to leave. The poignancy of the image is heightened by the audience’s awareness of Janáček as both dead, and dying: this was his last work. His departure is signalled by the fading image of the young woman.

Friel’s philosophical exploration of the role of the artist – a recurring theme in his work – is here given an added sense of poignancy. At the time of writing, he was approximately the same age that Janáček was then, and the play bears the marks of a mature, late work. The composer’s concerns at having the stamina and the motivating desire to once more create a masterpiece are gently explored. Interestingly, there is a sharp awareness of the duality of the ‘Muse’ as a concept. Janáček wrote over 700 letters to Kamila Stösslová; Anezka points out the sheer overwhelming volume of the correspondence and the inadequate response of the young woman, busy with her family, to this bewildering performance of obsession. Corduner, as Janáček, portrays a gifted artist but a self-obsessed and selfish man, who cannot really empathize with Kamila or see her as other than a projection of himself and as an symbol of inspiration for his creativity.

Dunbar’s direction is skilful and clean, focused on the central conflict of this short work, and freeing his performers to play. Dakič’s performance in the role of Anezka is remarkable for its portrayal of the young academic’s adoration of her subject, followed towards the end of the piece by her passionate monologue in which she rages at his dismissal of Stösslová. Her fluid physicalisation of the character and interpretation of the longer, literary speeches hints at her training in Belgrade and New York. In Corduner, she has an actor who can play against her; and the duet is skilfully interwoven with the comings and goings of the musicians, often with practical questions about windows, curtains, and chairs. Thus the philosophical musings of the main characters are undercut with the banality of the material world.

Lisa Fitzpatrick lectures in drama at the University of Ulster. 

  • Review
  • Theatre

Performances by Brian Friel

14 - 16 and 19 - 23 February, 2013

Produced by Millennium Forum Productions
In Great Hall, University of Ulster at Magee

Directed by Adrian Dunbar

Set Design: Stuart Marshall

Lighting Design: Conleth White

Sound Design: Paul O’Shaughnessy

Costume & Prop Design: Helen Quigley

With: Allan Corduner, Masha Dakič, and The Brodsky Quartet: Ian Belton, Paul Cassidy, Daniel Rowland, Jacqueline Thomas.