The pull quote for The Telegraph’s review for Edna Walsh’s Ballyturk is simply ‘hard to fathom’ – well, they got right. Twice I have been pulled into the Lyttelton for a Cillian Murphy / Edna Walsh collaboration and twice I have left frustrated with the outcome. The high points have remained the same and they lie in the wonderful sets created by Jamie Vartan and in the virtuoso performances by the cast.
In Misterman, Vartan turned the Lyttelton’s stage into a cavernous warehouse that seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance, whilst Murphy was magnificent in a performance of spectacular energy and verbal dexterity. My main reservation was the play seemed to operate under the illusion that it was a far more complex than it really was. The ending, presented as a big reveal, was something that could be seen a mile away.
Well in Ballyturk, Vartan creates another ingenious set and Murphy gives another high-energy performance. This time he is joined by Mikel Murfi, who is given every chance to showcase the benefits of a Jacques Le Coq schooling as he is jumps nimbly into the shoes of an entire Irish village’s worth of characters, and also by Stephen Rea, playing a languid, louche Stephen Rea-character.
The cast are all excellent in what they are asked to do. There are issues with the clarity of their speeches but this feels more of a studied directorial decision to give the play a frenetic feel in order to keep the audience off-balance at all times. Played on the edge of mania it is exhausting just to watch; The sudden explosions of music, the high-octane performances, the rapid fire dialogue, the conversational tics and character changes ensures that the 90 minutes is a mental strain.
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Will Eno has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, Lynn Gardener called him a ‘supreme monologist’ and was described in the New York Times as ‘Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation’. On the back of ‘Oh, the Humanity…’ I must admit to being utterly mystified by any of these facts.
Comprising of a series of monologues and duologues, Oh, the Humanity is primarily a display in the type of vacuous, meaningless pretension that you would be disappointed to see from a student in the first year of a creative writing course, let alone an award-winning playwright. It is supremely self-indulgent, remarkably irritating and, for a play that is clearly interested in the fragile connections that exist between people, stunningly lacking in self-awareness.
It is difficult to not feel sorry for the actors – more than one of whom looked genuinely uncomfortable as they delivered lines that fell flat against the stony silence of the audience. One can imagine that discomfort that comes from having to play a semi-comic supremely insensitive PR Rep for an airline company that has just seen one of its planes go down in flames. If timing is everything in comedy then this has butted rather too uncomfortably against reality.
I had really wanted to like this production if for no other reason than because I wish End of Moving Walkway every success. Whilst not a habitual attendee on the fringe-scene, I appreciate anyone willing to challenge the existing iniquitous model where access to performing is limited to those with the deepest pockets. End of Moving Walkway have taken the brave step of guaranteeing actors at least minimum wage for rehearsal and performance. It may not be a lot but it is better than expecting actors to exist on a wing and a prayer, and for this the company deserve praise.
One can see the logic of choosing Oh, the Humanity as a first play. A series of monologues means that you can keep rehearsals to a minimum and staging relatively simple. However this has been a year of sensational monologues, and whilst this may have heightened awareness in the form it has also set the bar very high. We have had terrific performances from Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson and Lisa Dwan early in the year. There was Kevin Spacey chewing up the stage in Clarence Darrow and Danny Braverman’s low-key but potent Wot! No Fish? Even now it is up against The Me Plays and, more pertinently, Neil LaBute’s Autobahn.
I have always struggled to like Neil LaBute plays but one has to admire them; his control over his writing, his use of language and the way that words become recurring motifs lead to powerful and impressive work. He is able to grab the audience and hold them in his sway no matter how distasteful the subject. In comparison Will Eno’s work is flabby in content and flaccid in power. In thrall to his own brilliance, he lets his monologues go on and on. Oh, the Humanity clocks in at over 90 minutes for five pieces and does nothing to justify holding the audience’s attention.
The Gate Theatre Dublin’s production of Watt, currently residing in the Barbican’s Pit Theatre, is an intimate affair that will certainly draw interest from Beckett’s usual fan-base but one that also reaches out to those who may find the aura of austerity that surrounds Nobel-winning writer a little forbidding.
Collated from selected extracts from Beckett’s original novel, Barry McGovern has skilfully reassembled a pathway through the deliberately tangled narration so that the monologue (free-flowing, inconsequential and seemingly aimless as it may be) lets us gaze upon the curious Watt.
In doing so McGovern has made accessible Beckett’s wonderful evocative use of language and shone a light on the absurdist comedy that so often counterpoints the undercurrent of melancholia. Nowhere is this better seen than in McGovern’s description of Watt’s amorous dealings with Mrs Gorman, one of a number of occasions where Beckett’s faculty with language allows a third-person narrated monologue to bring the scene into life as easily any Michael Frayn farce.
It is the preciseness of Beckett’s language that never fails to impress. Every word has its place and no other place, and no other order of words, would seem to suffice. His description of Watt kissing ‘Mrs Gorman on or about the mouth’ tells us more about the man Watt is than the most perfect casting could achieve.
McGovern works hard to bring a sense of the visual absurdity that is clearly there in the original text. His physical re-enactment of Watt’s peculiar walk brings to life a description whose vitality must have been bursting off the page. It is a comic’s dream and, by virtue of being the narrator, McGovern has license to fully exaggerate Watt’s absurdity. It is a splendid scene and a necessary injection of energy in a show that always run the risk of being swallowed whole by the dense richness of the language.
This problem is evaded throughout by making full use of changes of pace to keep the audience engaged. The description of the mixed choir is augmented by the sound of it. McGovern is such a skilful storyteller that the audience listen’s with him through two full choruses – the comic tension increasing each time chorus disappears further off-key.
McGovern’s lugubrious tones emerging from the unnamed narrator, a man appearing to be straining to retain the last vestiges of a more grand life cannot help but remind of Beckett’s most famous creations, Vladimir and Estragon, and the play retains much of the vaudevillian that is so closely associated with Waiting for Godot.
Beckett can be the most intense of authors and some of his monologues, no matter how skilful, are to be endured as much as enjoyed. ‘Not I’, a gruelling 17-minute work that was filmed with Julianne Moore as part of a Channel 4 season dedicated to Beckett, may be brilliant but it cannot be described as an easy experience. The language, powerful as it may be, is fired staccato with the audience picking up fragments, jumbled narratives, falling into one another until it finally emerges into a semblance of clarity.
The joy of this production of Watt is that the 50 minute show fairly races by and, in so doing, delivers a Beckett whose gift for language retains an accessibility that can be lost when exposed to the full range of modernist tricks that were employed to make him such an influential, if unforgiving , figure of 20th Century writing.