Nov 20, 2023

‘Cailíní’ Breathes New Life into Friel’s ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’

As part of the Beckett Theatre’s debut season, Beth Strahan’s play is a shining exploration in the breakdown of sisterhood.

Sáoirse GoesDeputy Editor
Photo by Martina Perrone

As exam season threateningly looms over students of all disciplines, so too does debut season for drama students. Kicking off this year’s lot of debuts is Beth Strahan’s Cailíní, devised in collaboration with Íde Simpson and the cast. Modelled on Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa which, as Strahan elucidates in her ‘Director’s Note’, “is a beautiful representation of femininity groping towards forms of self-expression”. From this basis, she endeavoured “to create a piece with the same sentiments of sisterhood, grievances, secrets and betrayal, and workshop how these dynamics can be embodied without dialogue”.

With this background to the production, as the audience filters into the Samuel Beckett Theatre on opening night of Cailíní, they are instantly greeted by the pastoral set, designed by Brady Dunne and consisting of an intricate kitchen with a table at its centre, as well as a back porch surrounded by leaves. As if capturing the idyll of country life and almost lending an atemporal quality to the scene, the stage is bathed in warm and homely light, emphasised through Aisling Finegan’s timeless costume design. On this stage stand five of the six actors, as in foreboding that the audience is about to eavesdrop on what happens behind closed doors in a familiar space. Despite this, Simpson’s Úna and Éabha Hayes’ Annie fold laundry at the kitchen table and Lily-Kate Hearns’ Katherine peels potatoes, seemingly unbothered by the entrance of what was to be a full audience. All the while, Megan Doherty’s Clodagh sits on the porch smoking and lowly talking with Michael Lucey’s Eamonn.

As the lights dim, a voicemail starts playing, rooting the show in a time close to the present. While Úna and Annie continue their rhythmic folding, the domestic ease slowly fades away, as the mechanised voice echoes “it’s about Dad, he’s not very well”. This initiates the peeling away of layers of comfort and secrets which unfold throughout Cailíní. As the line goes dead, the light dims and the domestic scene resumes, with Annie in a school uniform, doing her homework at the table.


However, the voicemail is replaced by the unsettling sound of a kettle boiling, which fades into a more unnerving silence, startlingly broken by Catherine’s sudden exclamation of “Fuck!”, having cut her finger with the peeler. Breaking the spell of rural bliss, the first interaction sets a playful unease into action as Úna reveals to the newly returned Catherine that they had a rat in the house, whom the former and the youngest sister Annie comically named Rodney. 

As Simpson’s character laments, “I can’t bear the silence of it all”, capturing the weariness of Úna and Catherine, adopting the maternal role, filling the gaping parental void. Despite fussing over whether their sick father had eaten – which neither of the three Mahon sisters in the kitchen knew an answer to – his absence throughout is noteworthy from the outset, casting an air of suspense throughout the audience. Despite this brief moment of tension, the ensuing sequence brilliantly captures Strahan’s emphasis on the movement of the production, as Úna and Annie run around the kitchen table, which turns into a playful showcase of Irish dancing. Throughout this dancing sequence, Hayes’ youthful fluidity shines, encapsulating the naivety of the 17-year-old Annie Mahon, the youngest of the sisters.

The dynamics further complicate themselves as Clodagh and her long-term boyfriend Eamonn enter. Eamonn, while seemingly an honorary member of the Mahon family, having even had a pretend wedding to Úna in their childhood, one which the latter remembers fondly, noting “I know it’s only pretend but it seemed real then”. Through her use of this memory, Strahan deftly blends the tropes of a period drama, recalling the dynamics between Laurie, Amy and Jo in Little Women, while rooting the drama in a markedly Irish context, notably through her use of comedy, landing to frequent audience laughter.

The performances in Cailíní are a standout feature of the production’s success: Simpson’s performance encapsulates the annoying overbearingness of the wronged sister, while the entrance of Juliet Hill, as the estranged Mairead Mahon, the girls’ half-sister, proves as the final nail in the coffin of an already crumbling family. As each sister lashes out at different moments during the one-act play, each performance perfectly encapsulates the frustration and cathartic release of a lifetime of built-up emotion.

Strahan kept her audience constantly at the edge of their seats, with calculated reveals, slowly unfolding another layer of the secrets and mysteries kept by the Mahon family, exposed to audience gasps on multiple occasions throughout the play. This is carefully punctuated through the choreographed physicality and movement of the performance, complemented by Hayden Kline’s original score and accentuated by Conor Bustos’s lighting design.

Cailíní catapults through a web of twists and turns towards a tragic yet enduring ending, as Eamonn laments “we’re too fucking old for this” in the closing moments, to the sound of rain falling. The warm light of the opening remains, but is rendered empty in the image of Úna and Eamonn sitting at the kitchen table, unsure of the future in all but the former’s staying in the house, alone, as the play closes with her haunting statement, “I’d rather here than anywhere else”.

Cailíní ran from November 15th to 17th at the Samuel Beckett Theatre.

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