Three plays by Tom Murphy
The plays have now finished their run at the Hampstead Theatre, London, and will move on to New York, Galway, Oxford, Cork, Dublin, Washington, and Oxford.
The current mania for theatre marathons continues, thanks to the London 2012 Festival, so after an eight hour Gatz how about nine hours of Tom Murphy.
The under-appreciated Irish playwright hasn’t had the international acclaim of Friel or McPherson, but this revival by the legendary Druid Theatre from Galway, is a richly rewarding reminder of his greatness.
Tony-winning director and founder of Druid, Garry Hynes insists that they’re not a trilogy (and indeed they cover a span of 25 years), but the hook is that they deal with the experience of emigration, how it creates trapped hopes, trapped emotion, and trapped characters.
Seeing all three in one day (they can be viewed in any order) at the Hampstead, they played Conversations on a Homecoming (1971/1985) first, set in a Galway pub in the early 70s, followed by A Whistle in Dark (1961), set in an grim emigrant home in Coventry in 1960, and then Famine (1968), set in a Mayo village ravaged by the potato famine in 1846. In many ways, reversing the chronology would have helped as the scarring of the Irish psyche caused by the Famine infuses much in the later plays.
Murphy experimented with form but at his best he is a master of poetic realism, and he is much emulated. Conversations is a wonderfully elegiac piece about Michael, the returned emigrant from New York, reuniting with his mates in a ramshackle rural pub for a long night of drink and truth telling. They cut him down to size – the tall poppy syndrome. His supposed great new life rubs their noses in it, but bitter schoolteacher Tom challenges why he’s returned. Is he another failed prodigal son? No one has better captured the emigrant dilemma than Murphy: success riles those left behind whilst failure insults them even more. The dreariness of Ireland in the early ’70s, that land of squinting windows, is beautifully evoked in Francis O’Connor sets and Joan O’Clery’s costumes and the great Marie Mullen (Tony winner for The Beauty Queen of Leenane and co founder of Druid) is magisterially glacial as the dreary pub landlady, Missus.
Whistle is of another order, a devastatingly visceral piece about the son of a violent and proud family, the myth-making Carneys, newly settled with an English wife, who receives a visit from his father and four brothers who drag him back into their nihilistic subculture of violence. Not content to leave rivalries in the old country, they want to settle a feud with a rival family now also settled in Coventry. Always the softer of the sons, and despised for it, the play centres on his struggle to escape his family and his own demons. Its brutally unflattering portrayal of the emigrant experience was too much for the staid Abbey Theatre of the 1950s and they vigorously rejected it. It finally got premiered at London’s then radical Theatre Royal Stratford East.
The weakest of the three is Famine, which struggles to rise above a theatre-in-education earnestness in the first act, but in the second finds its dramatic feet. The story of father, mother and daughter who were too proud to take the landlord’s humiliating pay-off and escape to Canada and so are consigned to a horrible fate, is deeply poignant. Of course, rendering a Holocaust-like subject like the Irish famine (where one million perished and nearly two million emigrated), in dramatic form, is perhaps too much for any text to bear.
The ensemble work by Druid and Hynes’ own direction is, as usual, impeccable. Marty Rea and Eileen Walsh in particular shine across the three plays, and the only false note was a miscast Niall Buggy. One of Ireland’s greatest actors (you could happily watch him read the phone book), here the twinkle in his eye disarms, whereas the part of the violent patriarch in Whistle requires a big violent lug in the Tony Soprano mould.
After London, the plays travel to the Lincoln Center Festival in New York. They are also back in the UK at the Oxford Playhouse August 18-25 and are not to be missed.