Writer: Tom Murphy
Director: Garry Hynes
Reviewer: Mary Tapper
The Public Reviews Rating:
It is fitting that DruidMurphy is part of the cultural Olympiad as it is the theatre equivalent of a triathlon…three plays back to back, a feat of endurance that is ultimately uplifting and inspiring, leaving you exhausted but exhilarated.
The production takes three of Tom Murphy’s plays and explores what it means to be Irish and how the history of emigration has affected the very psyche of the Irish people. It is possible to see each of the plays separately over the next week, with a further showing of all three, back to back, on Saturday 25th August.
In the first play, Conversations on a Homecoming, we are welcomed to a small bar on County Galway, as Michael returns home to meet the group of friends he grew up with and left behind. The play is fascinating as we gradually explore why Michael has returned home and if the hopes and dreams of a young idealised bunch of friends have been realised. Here the cast excel. There is not a weak link amongst them and, as the plays runs straight though for 1 hour 45 minutes, it is fascinating to see the small conversations develop. Murphy has a lyrical way with words, so the dialogue takes on a musical quality and the cast do a great play justice. The set is excellent, all shabby and rather down at heel decay, and the lighting a treat, with excellent spotlights and general lighting. With characters sitting in a bar and moving around great care has been taken with the blocking, so that we do not miss expressions. It seems unfair to pick particular actors for special mention, as the standard is universally excellent, but Eileen Walsh deserves credit for her touching and often hilarious portrayal of Peggy.
And then after a 30 minutes break we settle down for the second instalment, A Whistle in the Dark. The play is set in Coventry in 1960 and we meet a young couple from Ireland, struggling to make ends meet and fit in with society. Michael has invited his brothers and father to stay and as the play unfolds we explore themes of family, belonging and how to make a place in society; is it possible to escape your roots and your upbringing, or will they always return to haunt you; and how do you make peace with an environment that does not accept you – blend in and not cause trouble or fight for respect and fear to gain a place at the table? Here again Murphy delivers an excellent piece of writing as he slowly develops characters and adds layers to the play. Once again the actors are equal to the task in hand and it is fascinating to see actors from the first play pop up in completely different guises. Here Aaron Monaghan reinforces his acting credentials with a mesmerising portrayal of the leader of the gang of brothers, Harry. Again the set is excellent and lighting lovely and as the piece unfolds we also start to appreciate the theme of music that runs through Murphy’s plays. We are never far from beautiful music and, with words as poetry, the lilt is quite mesmerising at times.
The third play, Famine, has a very different feel to it. Rusted corrugated iron covers the whole back wall and the small cast of the first two plays expands to become a whole community. It is County Mayo in 1846 and the potato harvest has failed for the second year running. As we follow the cast of the village, led by its elder John Connor, the play explores how people are influenced and what ties a physical place can have for a man. After the two plays preceding it, this play is quite hard work. Rather than the close spotlight focus on individuals of the first two pieces this is on a grander scale and it is not always easy to feel connected to the characters. I wondered at the order of the plays, running backwards chronologically with the longer, arguably slightly less accessible play at the end. But perhaps, on reflection, this is a clever order for the plays and the play itself is playing a clever trick on us. The audience are weary, sleepwalking to the end of the play, like the victims of the famine itself. And at the end it is the survival of the community of Glanconner village that counts rather than the individuals within it. Here Murphy turns rambling words of delirium into a background noise, a sort of heartbeat against which to work.
Was the journey worth it? Indeed. It will be a long time before you see such fine acting again. Immerse yourself in a nation’s identity, wonder at how complicated family relations are, and enjoy the poetry of Murphy’s words. In short, a triumph.
Runs until 25th August
Picture: Catherine Ashmore