Sunday, July 27, 2014

Landmark Productions, 'Ballyturk': Everything We Thought We Knew

The affect of watching Enda Walsh's play is to feel certainty of time and place constantly slip away. Will we ever find our way back from Ballyturk? Photo: Patrick Redmond

Black Box Theatre, Galway International Arts Festival
Jul 14-27

My review of Ballyturk coming up just as soon as I don't think bunnies should be given that complexity ...

What is the Irish stage renowned for if not evoking a people living in an irreconcilable society who, with artful language, pray for almost supernatural intervention to free them from a merciless flow of history?

No, Godot didn't show, and we might take from that a lack of salvation. It hasn't been enough for many Irish playwrights to simply work within a realism, putting onstage local speech and situations that are believable. A theatrical form to present Irish life has notably been non-naturalist - splitting Garr's psyche in two in Philadelphia, Here I Come!, packing the mythologised Matt Talbot into Talbot's Box, the crumbling bodies inhabiting the Brechtian landscape of Famine. Use of naturalism would assume an absolute whereas, as our theatre has achingly revealed, there is a lack of wholeness in the Irish experience; we've never been a complete people. Since Beckett, we've been dramatising our desperate need to re-affirm whatever existence it is we are left with. It's groundbreaking of Enda Walsh's new play to readily send you into that unknown, that lack of reality, we've been keeping at bay for years.

Light creeps up on a man in a red hurling helmet (Cillian Murphy), giving an impassioned monologue about a begrudged lover in the town of Ballyturk. His anger would send shivers if not for the sudden illumination of a second man, eating crisps and wearing nothing but his underwear (Mikel Murfi). "I probably should have dressed". It's the first in a series of sudden shifts that jolts the production from one tone to another.

A hyperkinetic sequence choreographed to the disco strains of ABC's The Look of Love circuits a routined existence - taking a shower, getting dressed, having breakfast. The two individuals then fill their time with rehearsed dramas about the people of Ballyturk, evoking a discordant rural Irish existence of bingo rivalries and harsh fashion critiques. What will happen when they accept what is painfully clear, that the town exists only in this room?

Cillian Murphy's range is as broad as ever. As with his athletic performance in Walsh's Misterman, he is wildly manic yet able to revert to the most still and sombre, his eyes glittering with tears as his character considers his fate for the first real time. Walsh has clearly tailored Mikel Murfi's role to make use of the actor's physical discipline, his Lecoq stylings manifesting a multitude of characters in quick succession.

The atmosphere of the event is more affecting than the story as Walsh, who is fascinatingly evolving as a director, dissolves the naturalism of the scene. It all takes place in Jamie Vartan's set - a factory-sized room made of concrete, decorated with old furniture and wall drawings of a town land comprising faces, roads and houses. Especially in the warehouse interior of the Black Box Theatre, it's an intimidatingly naturalistic and chilling setting. As the auditorium is thrown by abrupt sound effects from Helen Atkinson's meticulous design, and the seriousness of events curtailed by severe use of slapstick, the affect of watching Ballyturk is to feel it constantly slip away from you, to unnerve as you lose certainty of a time and place.

By the crashing arrival of its mysterious third character - Stephen Rea's chain-smoking "collector" - the play arrives at a point where it has excavated itself of physicality and becomes a site for language. It effectively picks up from Walsh's last play Penelope, a poetic drama about wooing. Similarly, Ballyturk becomes an extraordinary listening space but but only after the stage has been exhausted visually and physically. Sometimes, to earn beautiful words onstage they have to be the only things that are left.

Like the deep strings of Teho Teardo's cello arrangements, the play comes to almost musically soar over you, its spoken text melting into air, referring not to a physical reality but possibly a cosmic one. The purpose of life, we're told, is to live it to its very edge. In its furious energy and gradual dissolution, Ballyturk doesn't push theatrical form as much as tear its walls apart. Whatever's on the other side, you'll feel invigorated but terrified.

What did everybody else think?

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