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Samuel Beckett has always cast a long shadow over the career of fellow Irishman Enda Walsh. His spirit again informs Walsh’s latest tragicomic fairy tale, which seems designed to illustrate the paradox that life is both unbearably miserable and far too short. Commissioned by Galway International Arts Festival, where it premiered to great acclaim in July, Ballyturk has just transferred to London’s National Theatre. The marquee pulling power of chisel-cheeked screen star Cillian Murphy, who delivers a hyperbolic and demandingly physical performance, seems more likely to fill seats than the playwright’s fuzzy message about the futility of human existence.
The Dublin-born, London-based Walsh is a prolific writer and director, penning 17 stage plays and three screenplays in the last decade. Though probably best known for adapting the hit Irish rom-com Once into a multiple award-winning Broadway and West End musical, Walsh’s original work skews more towards darkly funny surrealism and heavily stylized absurdism. Such is the case with Ballyturk, whose claustrophobic setting and repetitive verbal rhythms mark it out as a semi-sequel to many of the playwright’s previous works, notably Misterman, which also starred Murphy and played in New York in 2011.
Ostensibly set in the mythic Irish backwater town that gives the play its title, the single 90-minute act actually takes place entirely inside Jamie Vartan‘s striking one-room stage design, a bunker-like apartment sealed off from obvious signifiers of time and location. The paint-peeling walls are scrawled with crazed graffiti and childlike drawings of the town’s colorful citizens. The floor is strewn with balloons and toys. Droll conversational vignettes occasionally leak in from outside, though they may be auditory hallucinations.
Is this an insane asylum? A prison? A sinister experiment with human lab rats? Or maybe one of the waiting rooms of Hell?
As ever with Walsh, there are no straight explanations. Instead, he fills this space with crazy-paving wordplay and frenetic physical comedy. Murphy and fellow Walsh veteran Mikel Murfi play hapless roommates simply named 1 and 2. They appear to be trapped forever in this purgatorial playpen, perpetually distracting themselves with high-energy slapstick routines and ritual mimicry of their eccentric Ballyturk neighbors. But these clownish antics are punctuated by desperate panic whenever their freewheeling conversation touches on notions of time, freedom and life outside the room.
Ballyturk contains distant echoes of Dylan Thomas, Sartre, Ionesco, even Laurel and Hardy. Fans of the cult Anglo-Irish TV comedy Father Ted may also feel some kinship with the surreal humor here, underscored by offstage vocal contributions from that television show’s former co-star Pauline McLynn. But of course, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is the most obvious blueprint for a story about two powerless clowns stuck in cosmic limbo, anxiously waiting for something to happen.
Unlike Beckett, however, Walsh actually brings a Godot-like figure onstage in the form of Stephen Rea‘s chain-smoking 3. He emerges from a reality-warping rupture in the set’s rear wall to make ominous small talk about the brevity of existence and croon a David Lynch-ian musical number. Between poetic monologues, 3 causally demands a human sacrifice from 1 and 2, a Faustian date with fate that they have clearly been working hard to forget.
The arrival of Rea’s saturnine puppetmaster brings a tangible tonal shift, tipping Ballyturk from comedy to tragedy. Walsh finally fills in some context here, hinting at a back story involving child abduction and prisoners who create fictional landscapes to blot out unbearable trauma. A naturalistic, Oldboy-style pay-off to this dramatic puzzle might have packed a killer emotional punch. But that would clearly have been too simplistic for Walsh. He ultimately just teases us with obscure half-clues, leaving both characters and audience stranded in a Beckettian No Man’s Land.
Anyone looking for solid dramatic resolutions and deep character studies should avoid Ballyturk. Aside from brooding on the bleak absurdity of life and death, the fable-like story feels wide-open to metaphorical interpretation. Admittedly Walsh’s ripe poetic language and juicy comic wordplay provide some compensation. But this production’s chief appeal lies in the explosively energetic double act of Murphy and Murfi, which combines dance, mime, quick-change vocal impersonations and knockabout physical comedy. Both perform with an athletic vitality and sweat-drenched stamina that Walsh’s thin, disjointed musings on mortality do not quite deserve.
Venue: Lyttelton, National Theatre, London (runs through Oct. 11)
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Mikel Murfi, Stephen Rea
Playwright-director: Enda Walsh
Producer: Padraig Cusack
Set & costume designer: Jamie Vartan
Lighting designer: Adam Silverman
Music: Teho Teardo
Choreographer: Kate Prince
Sound designer: Helen Atkinson
Presented by Landmark Productions, Galway International Arts Festival
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