This festive season, the Abbey Theatre’s Peacock stage brings audiences a hearty production of Thornton Wilder’s 1931 play The Long Christmas Dinner, directed by Sarah Jane Scaife and Raymond Keane. The one-act play follows the Bayard family over 90 years of Christmas dinners in an expressionist take on the passing of time, providing an ethereal meditation on the shifting of family dynamics. The University Times spoke to Trinity alumnus Eoin Fullston, who plays Sam Bayard, a member of the youngest generation figuring in the play, about his experience working on the seasonal production.
Fullston, who graduated from Trinity with a degree in Drama and Theatre Studies this year, plans to begin a master’s degree in Contemporary Acting at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London on January 3rd 2022, just three days after the final show of his run on the Peacock stage. Fullston commented on the “perfect” timing of The Long Christmas Dinner. “I feel so lucky to have gotten this opportunity”, he says.
This production of Wilder’s play, while originally written in 1931, is set a little later in time with a scope ranging from the late 1860s to around 1918. Fullston’s character Sam appears onstage around the later dates. He describes the play as “a cyclical meditation on family life and death”, placing a distinct emphasis on the effect of the changes in family dynamics as the Christmas dinners progress over the years. Indeed, he notes the central question of the play is “who is at this Christmas dinner that was not at the last, or who is not at this Christmas dinner and what does their absence do to the space and the family within that space”. This expressionist vision creates, in Fullston’s words, a space where “memories seep from the walls”, imbuing the play with an inherently ethereal quality with ghosts of the past inhabiting the dining room.
Describing the development process for the play as “incredible and so collaborative”, Fullston also notes the emphasis placed by Scaife and Keane on “having a full body experience while performing” to strengthen the distinctive ensemble of the production. This emphasis placed on the body is enhanced through the physicality of the performance, which demands the Christmas dinners to be mimed, with the only props present at the table being a decanter and wine glasses. Fullston credits Keane for this, praising his role in “building up that skill set”. Additionally, the play uses a mid-Atlantic accent for its duration, a kind of old Hollywood anglicised American accent. Andrea Ainsworth, the Abbey’s voice director, was indispensable “at getting the voice ready to be able to travel through the space” of the stage, Fullston says.
With the most recent set of Covid restrictions looming over the festive production, The Long Christmas Dinner has not been affected dramatically by the reduction in capacity to 50 per cent. Indeed, Fullston notes that, for the Peacock stage, “we were playing to a 70 per cent capacity anyway, so we’re only losing about 10 seats”. Despite acknowledging that “it is particularly hard for the Abbey, where there is a much larger audience number cut in half”, Fullston affirms that “we all just feel so lucky to be going on stage that we’re not really thinking about it too much”.
The prevailing challenge faced by the recent graduate while involved in The Long Christmas Dinner was the knowledge of not having finished his training. “Because I’m going over to do my master’s at Central, I didn’t feel as if I was 100 per cent ready”, Fullston explained. To overcome this, Fullston says it was important to “surrender and to trust the process and trust that it is going to come out the way it is supposed to”. As soon as he got to that point, he says he “was really able to enjoy it and trust that [he is] good enough to be here”.
Commenting on the somewhat condensed play time of 50 minutes, Fullston asserts that the “expressionistic structure allows all of the action to unfold, not confined by a naturalistic framework, which really fuels the piece”. In this sense, audiences can expect “to think about their own families” when watching The Long Christmas Dinner. “The Abbey have timed this play really well in terms of Christmas being the focal point and how families have been stretched apart over the last two years with Covid”, he says. Audiences can thus expect “to reflect and think about their own families and realise that time is of the essence”. He concludes: “I think it’s a really special piece and I think that Sarah Jane [Scaife] and Raymond [Keane] have done a fantastic job and I feel so lucky to have gotten to work with such an amazing cast.”
The Long Christmas Dinner runs Mondays to Saturdays until December 31st on the Abbey’s Peacock stage. Tickets can be purchased on the Abbey website.