Christopher Gore (played by Tom Courtenay) is a landowner in Ireland, but hails originally from Kent, in England - his “Home Place”. Christopher is a kindly, paternalistic landlord who, at least on the face of it, ‘cares’ about his tenants and the local Irish community. Christopher lives with his son David (Hugh O’Connor), and both have amorous inclinations towards their housekeeper Margaret (Derbhle Crotty). But this play isn’t about romantic entanglement between father and son, but it is about conflict.
At the start of the play, Christopher returns from a memorial service for another local landlord, Lord Lifford, who has recently been battered to death. Christopher is worried that there’s a ‘hit list’ of landlords who are going to be murdered. Because this play is set in Donegal in 1878 at the beginning of the Land War which was brought on by depression and famine, and the desire of the indigenous homesteaders to govern themselves and own their land.
There’s also a further dimension to this play in the form of Christopher’s cousin, Dr Richard Gore (played by Nick Dunning). Richard is an arrogant, overbearing scientist who believes in racial superiority, and that he can predict behaviour by measuring the physical attributes of human beings in order to enable the English ruling classes to control not just an empire, but ‘the entire universe’. Richard’s data-gathering exercise, arranged and accommodated by Christopher, sets the landowner against the local population, and a frightened and insecure Christopher is forced into capitulation.
At first I found Courtenay’s playing rather strange, if not a little eccentric. But set against the bombastic and racist attitude of his cousin Richard, it actually works exceptionally well, because it defines a man who can’t really decide which side he’s on – hoping in a sense that accommodating both his cousin Richard and the locals will work. Of course, it’s a strategy that’s doomed to failure. But Courtenay’s character also knows he’s an outsider in both the Ireland which has been his home for most of his life, and the ‘home place’ where he was born. In reality, he has nowhere he can call home and it’s no wonder that he (as well as his son, David) is ready to escape overseas. Courtenay’s playing is all the more effective when, in sheer desolation and fear, he becomes a kind of monster, lashing out at his housekeeper in a manner akin to the scene from ‘Lord Of The Rings’ when Bilbo Baggins is overwhelmed by the power of the ring.
‘The Home Place’ is a new and finely crafted play by Brian Friel, whose other historical works include ‘Translations’ and ‘Making History’. This production is from the Gate Theatre, Dublin, and is well orchestrated by director Adrian Noble. Peter McKintosh, who has been busy recently on other productions such as ‘Ying Tong’ and ‘The Birthday Party’, designed both the set and costumes for this production. I expect the set will prompt some discussion since it contains a number of large trees that are devoid of either leaves or branches - the exact symbology of which may require an authority the likes of Professor Robert Langdon of ‘Da Vinci Code’ fame, to interpret precisely. But I suppose they are meant to represent dead wood that has to be cut away – and it’s notable that in the script it’s Christopher and his son who have the task of deciding which must go.
The play is very well cast because apart from Courtenay in the lead role, Derbhle Crotty turns in a highly polished performance, as the housekeeper, Margaret. And I particularly liked Harry Towb’s portrayal of Margaret’s father, Clement O’Donnell, as well as Nick Dunning’s exceptionally strong Richard.
All in all, this is a production of considerable quality and significance.
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Fine production.." On Tom Courtenay: "It is a performance lacking any emotional authenticity." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "The writing sometimes seems contrived, the themes cumbersomely developed....This may not be great Friel but at the age of 76 he still displays tantalising flashes of his great and life-affirming talent." On Tom Courtenay: "a superb performance". BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "It’s actually a rich piece, which will have tomorrow’s academics exploring its symbolism...but also presents today’s audiences with an absorbing human story." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "A mix of second-best Friel and second-hand Chekhov." LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "..ghost-like, elegiac and nostalgic. It makes a stand for niceness, not necessarily for justice..." PETER HEPPLE for THE STAGE says, "Tom Courtenay is our foremost exponent of a laissez faire style of acting in which he is never less than riveting...."