Friday, December 31, 2010

Best of Irish Theatre 2010 #2: Druid, ‘Penelope’

Druid Lane Theatre, Galway
Jul 8-24

“A group of men with a common ideology, a collective direction! That’s what you’re suggesting, Quinn! We’re building a company right here!” 
– Dunne

“There’s no point. We’re the talking dead. Now I want to talk about my friend Murray” 
– Burns

Choosing only five productions from this past year has not been an easy task. Even tougher was deciding which order they should be in.

I gave The Company #5 for their sharp ingenuity and effortless charm. I gave Druid’s The Silver Tassie #4 for the momentous production values and O’Casey’s enigmatic script. Christ Deliver Us!, then, felt like the perfect match of the greatest theatrical resources of the nation with one of the strongest literary voices of the nation. The Abbey-Thomas Kilroy combo was perfect in poetry and relevance. However, I don’t think it quite beats the latest jewel from Druid’s genius correspondence with Enda Walsh.

Kilroy exemplifies a playwright who is attuned with cultural shifts and knowledgeable of societal forces, and captures such forces in their densities and ironies masterfully onstage. Walsh not only demonstrates an awareness of such forces, but twists them. He learned as far back as Disco Pigs that if he were to create microcosms in which the characters, as if they have been subjects in a Zimbardo experiment, are culturally conditioned differently to that of mainstream society then he would be able to access a side of human nature that longs for the truth of the world from which it is removed. The formula feels almost like an evolution from Beckett’s, and it is one Walsh has refined again and again, and is gloriously materialized by Mikel Murfi’s direction.

In Penelope, Walsh looks at the suitors from Homer’s Odyssey who attempt to win Penelope’s affections whilst Odysseus is away fighting the Trojan Wars. Burns, Quinn, Dunne, and Fitz are the remaining finalists in the competition, and spend their days in the empty swimming pool of Penelope’s estate, taking to medication and booze to make the repetition of their days tolerable, as well as vindictive manipulation. The play opens with Burns staring at a blood stain on the swimming pool wall while the muscular Quinn torches a sausage on a barbeque. The blood is Murray’s, another competitor in who Burns found a resemblance to the virtues of mankind that have lost their heroism in this swimming pool. It’s a suicide that has been prompted by Quinn, whose mind-games had manipulated the man to take his own life. Here lies the tension in Penelope: the conflict between a masculine force brutal in its determination to obliterate all competition(*) and a thirst for a substance which in its trickle seeds of compassion and honour are possible.  

* “We eat life! We annihilate every single thing that doesn’t comply to our tastes, to our sense of good, our idea of beauty” – Quinn

As always Walsh’s language is gorgeously excessive, the exuberance of which is captured by the Olympic performances of the cast at hand. Tadhg Murphy in his final moments as Burns is absolutely heartbreaking. However if there was one supreme moment in Irish theatre this year, I would have to award it to Niall Buggy as the fumbling Fitz who in his moment of glory not only comes closer than his younger, robust counterparts to win Penelope’s affections but also illustrates the Walshian formula in its most beautiful of states yet:

“In the real world people are shunted from scene to scene, packed with half-knowledge , half-truths. What a world they’ve made! And where does truth exist and how does anyone breathe in that world? How do doors open and how do people leave their houses? And what makes them want to talk or need to listen or feel obliged to experience things? And how is it possible that they can fall asleep and rise again and fill a day and mark that day and sleep and wake and live in that day? It’s called living apparently. How horrible that world is! But I’m in my house of nothing and high in the distance I see those people on Earth ‘living’. … I will forget my past, forget the real world, sit in my nothingness and begin with a new idea … an idea … of … (He clears his head and the word forms.) you”

Hilarious, artfully remarkable … Penelope is a gem.

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