DruidMurphy at Town Hall Galway

October 28, 2013

There are ugly and uncomfortable truths served up in Druid’s trio of Tom Murphy plays, which can be seen in isolation or in unison at the forthcoming Dublin Theatre Festival. Tracing the rot at the heart of the Irish psyche, fed by fantasy and metastasised through geographical and psychological instability, they capture an Ireland in constant search for the hair of the dog, the never ending hangover of the past leaving a people demoralised, brutalised and bankrupt – financially, morally and emotionally. You too will be spent by the end of this crushing cycle, which compassionately exposes the unspooling thread of our moral fiber, from the starvation of the great Famine to the postpartum depression left by the still-birth of sixties ideology, where the performances have an almost intolerable authenticity.

Hunger – for food, love, acceptance or understanding, is the calling card of the Irish, our constant mythologising, romanticising and capacity for self – delusion a handy laxative for life’s hard knocks. Over the course of each of these three shows – Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark and Famine, Murphy presents his antagonists with an out. But their pride and unyielding subservience keep them trapped in a continual cycle of shame and self loathing – and us along with them, the painful parallels with the past making each play ping with pertinence.

In Conversations on a Homecoming, Michael (Rea), a wayward soul, rejoins the flock, only to discover the feeds gone foul since they last chewed the fat together. Circumstance may not have changed much in the ten years since he darkened the door of The White House, the West of Ireland watering hole that shaped him. His best friend Tom (Lombard) is still engaged to Peggy (Walsh), Junior (Nolan) still works for his old man and Liam (Monaghan) – symbolic of the coming storm that would upend the country, is still waiting to get his hands on ‘his birthright’, the land.

Yet the empty rhetoric of their absentee figurehead, J.J.- publican, piss head and false prophet, booms out from the passing of time, making their mediocrity unendurable. Michael’s pilgrimage for nostalgic nourishment stirs the (bull) sh*t even more, leading to a showdown between the one who left and the one who got to stay, a devastating dual between hope and hard earned acceptance, where each round in the verbal ring is followed by one at the bar.

More lethal still are the tales spun by Dada (a brilliant Buggy), the patriarch of the Carney clan in the brutish Whistle in the Dark. Set in Coventry at the start of the sixties, a father and son join the rest of his boys in the home of his eldest and least loved, Michael (Rea). While matters of respect and restitution are trashed out, a tug of love and loathing erupts for the soul of the youngest, Des (Drea).

Michael wants to lead him away from the influence of their thuggish brothers so that the possible respectability he might earn from a proper trade might rub off on the soiled family name. The rest want Des to join them in a physical dogfight with a rival faction of immigrants so that they can defend their honor.

What exactly makes a man is brutally burnished through the actions and words recounted and dismembered by the cruel, if clued in, brother Harry (Monaghan), who forces the regressive Michael to loose face, then faith, in an unrelenting series of faced facts.

Show by show, Francis O’Connor’s set is stripped away, tearing apart the walls mounted until all we’re left with is rust, an ever present aesthetic response to the final play’s titular Famine and it’s contamination of who we are today.

With a contemporary echo in the characters’ dress and with their longing for leadership, the sourness in the clay all those years ago continues to bear strange fruit in the people of Ireland. When one character says, “There’s no spark in them… I wouldn’t starve so quite,” the knowing sting reminds us that the wheel of history keeps turning and we’re now on it, David Bolger’s chilling choreography a reminder of a subservience that continues to cost lives.

I caught these shows on a cycle day at the Galway Arts Festival (who co-produced this show with the Lincoln Centre Festival and Quinnipiac University), but I’d suggest catching them individually, to gleam maximum flavour from Murphy’s stunning portraits of what it is to be Irish. To let the meaning of each show drip, drop through your psyche rather than saturating it in one go.

Regardless of how you like yours, do go. Under director Garry Hynes’ astonishing command, this marvelous ensemble picks at the scab of the past to expose the puss of the present, with impeccable timing, presence and intelligence. Monaghan and Rea’s turns in Whistle in the Dark are extraordinary, humbling. The stuff of future legend. While special mention must be given to Rory Nolan’s Junior (whose silence said more than most characters spiels) and Gavin Drea, remarkable on his professional debut.

Gifting the glorious gab to inarticulate tongues, Murphy’s plays act as a powerful memorial to the unsated hunger of the Irish. Do not miss.


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