Beckett on Poppers
National Theatre | London
directed by Enda Walsh
Ballyturk is an Irish town of Father Ted surrealness, so insular that simply wearing a yellow jumper marks a man out as irrecovably other – “it’s not normal in any sense.” In Enda Walsh’s similarly abnormal but utterly fascinating new play, the town’s stories are an outlet for two young men trapped in a room that’s treacherous with hidden cubby holes – a hamster cage for two hyperactive humans. In stunning, hectic performances, Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi throw themselves against its walls into the existential bleakness that lies outside.
Dublin-born playwright Walsh premiered this piece in Galway, writing and directing a complex text that’s utterly sunk in the rhythms of Irish speech and small-town life. But the duo of actors here are Irish actors, switching in and out of a heightened performative Irishness, in a layering that’s heightened by a smaller proscenium arch and tattered theatre curtain that’s placed centre stage. They’ve pinned up drawings and scribbles to make a dog-eared psycho-geographical map of Ballyturk for a backdrop. In front of it, they re-enact trips to an impossibly backward cornershop, with Cillian Murphy visibly shrivelling into an old woman who’s scandalised by a simple request for semi-skimmed milk. These are knowingly banal tellings of an Ireland “carved from mashed potato,” with lumpen townsfolk drinking through wakes of epic scale and passing into blackly comic stories of coffin mishaps.
In between these “trips out” into Ballyturk, the actors circle with circus slapstick round the rituals of getting ready, breakfasting, or making tea. Murphy and Murfi are endlessly satisfying to watch – which is lucky, given the bizarrely patterning of tasks Walsh sets them to. They dance, exercise, or shower themselves in talcum powder with furious energy. They’re trapped in an advent calendar of a set, which releases surprises from behind doors at set intervals. These start small – tennis balls, or a cuckoo clock – but grow bigger and less festive with the entrance of Stephen Rea, who reduces the pair to mice.
With his appearance, the tone darkens, and it becomes apparent that the set is a prison as much as a game – with an odd rockstar gravitas, he interrogates the two younger men and sends them scuttling nervously round their broached habitat.
There’s something of Beckett about their elliptical, terse dialogue and the non-literal space Walsh’s play inhabits. But there’s also a grimy, amped up energy that supplements the bleak tweeness of taking tea with this sinister stranger – this is Beckett on poppers. We’re blasted with pop songs, then with a small world broken apart to let in a glimpse of a vast, comfortless transcendence beyond it.
Although it’s hard not to be charmed by these two men energetically pantomiming breakfast routines and fitness montages, this play is rather less forgiving than the elastic waistbands of their tracksuits. It’s underpinned with a grim philosophy which no number of rampant tennis balls or carefully stacked biscuit towers could undermine or topple – escaping the outside forces which manipulate this little world is futile. They are powerless, but watching their attempts to stave of the infinite is endlessly fascinating.
photo | ©Patrick Redmond