Black Box Theatre, Galway Arts Festival
My review (with spoilers) of Enda Walsh and Cillian Murphy’s excellent Misterman coming up just as soon as I feel the door shut gently behind me as I step out into Innisfree ...
The plays of Enda Walsh have been admirable additions to the Galway Arts Festival in recent years. Our festivals are vital laboratories, giving audiences and artists access to diverse work that rejuvenates possibility and inspiration. Walsh’s work is some of the most ambitious employment of theatrical substance these days, storming through common accommodations of the text-dominated naturalist stage and onwards to theatre’s glorious landmark as a concentration of live space, with the audience usually breathless in tow.
Walsh’s claim to theatrical territory is a battlefield scene of social experimentation, where public and private selves spill blood over some heaven beyond the banality of the hard and tiring everyday (Niall Buggy’s Fitz elegantly spells out such physics in recent gem Penelope, as quoted at the bottom of that review). Those witness to these plays may catch a perceptivity in the corner of their eye, one that unveils the societal forces to which the human psyche is ultimately at mercy.
Originally conceived by Walsh in 1999 for Corcadorcha, Misterman’s blockbuster revival is outfitted with an epic stage design and crowned by Cillian Murphy’s monumental performance as evangelist/entrepreneur Thomas Magill. When entering the space you are greeted by a vast warehouse interior set of steel and concrete that could easily be imagined as an extension of the Black Box Theatre itself. A raggedy man runs between the shadows, eventually stepping into the light. With precise timing and impersonation he revisits a fateful day – a pilgrimage through his home village on Innisfree on the day of the community dance. Frustrated with his neighbours, who could deliver heaven from beyond the clouds if only they had possession of virtue, Thomas Magill documents the community’s sins so as to redeem the isle in the eyes of God. His sermons recipes for mockery and isolation, he smothers his sorrow with cheesecake in Mrs Leary’s cake shop when an angel walks in through the door.
While the added star power injected into Landmark’s production does no harm, Murphy is an absolute force in Misterman. Fluent in subtleties, he flows from one portrayal to the next, accessing a remarkable range of emotions as he goes. He leaves Thomas defeated and shrunk at times, and at others sends him feverishly panicking through the room flinging hammers across the stage, kicking tables, and slamming himself into walls. Like Tadhg Murphy, it seems that Cillian Murphy was born to deliver Walsh’s exuberant prose, written here with Wildean calligraphy on a black page.
Considering the scale of the set (which is the largest constructed for a Walsh play in my memory), Murphy’s presence never feels drowned or buried. There is something completely unnerving about this space though. Tape-decks are scattered around from which Thomas activates the disembodied voices of those he interacts with. He has the lair rigged to an exact schedule which demands that he sprint across the room from one recorder to another without delay. But sometimes the space seems to act against him. Tape reels start turning by themselves, conjuring ghost voices without explanation. A dog, perhaps one of the sin-sniffers from Innisfree, barks viciously from outside the theatre wall. Lamps build intensely and soar with Donnacha Dennehy’s celestial score, their glow hot, sheer and terrifying. There is a beautiful and frightening mystery in the landscape of Misterman, its substance possibly stellar or hellfire or something else entirely, and its burn has eternally scarred our curiosities.
And then there’s our judgement on Thomas Magill’s soul. Are we to sympathise with the man for the cruel joke that the town has played on him, or forgive him for killing the dog or his treatment of de-winged Edel? Then there’s his relationship with his parents – who seem to have been the only love and support the man had. When the voice of his mother on the tape recorder tells her son that she loves him, it is incredibly moving. Thomas’s stand at the climax of the play (the enormous commiseration I felt for such sent me back to Tadhg Murphy in Penelope’s finale a year earlier) is a gut-wrenching scene to watch. With God in his heart throughout, in these last moments the hurt boy screams and condemns his fellow man – not for being unchristian but for being mean to him. The tragedy of Misterman is in Thomas’s dislocation of the faith he practised devoutly, engendering it into his tattered social life as a means to enact vengeance. In this final act he demonstrates a selfishness, speaking not the gospel of God but a gospel of his own, and whether or not he deserves forgiveness for this is left to the judgement of the audience.
Like other Walsh tragic heroes, Thomas exists in a microcosm where he’s culturally conditioned differently to those of “mainstream” society. It is these individuals’ longing for the truth of the world from which they are removed that forms the poetry of these works. A theme that has occurred in Walsh’s more recent plays has been the notion of clearly-defined justice and injustice. In The Walworth Farce Sean comes to recognise how the self-involved lies of his father are preventing him and his brother from living their lives, and when Dinny threatens Hayley he takes action to stop him. In Penelope Burns realises Quinn’s threat to all things honourable and compassionate, having killed Murray and prevented Fitz’s from his rightful victory over Penelope’s affections, and he takes action to ensure that he is not the victor. These are heroic plays where individuals take action against injustice to not only themselves but others as well. Thomas has admirable intentions to save everyone from damnation but his destination is ultimately a self-obsessed one. In this respect, I feel incredibly sorry for the man. Heroism is a virtue denied to Thomas, and as a result he self-destructs in a manner that would horrify the god he loves most dearly. Loneliness his sentence, only in sin it seems that the “Misterman” has company, and that is truly and brutally heartbreaking.
Enda Walsh and the Galway Arts Festival continue to grant theatre audiences excellence and risk in craft. This is probably one of the most worthwhile and extraordinary collaborations in the ongoing development of our country’s theatre, and one I hope to see continue for years to come.
What did everybody else think?