I’m a fan of Irish playwright Enda Walsh, whose plays Disco Pigs, The Walworth Farce, The Electric Ballroom, and Penelope represent some of the most exciting contemporary playwrighting anywhere in the world. Walsh is by no means a feminist writer, although in Disco Pigs, it’s the young woman who winds up freeing herself from the constraints of her working class Cork existence, and in The Walworth Farce, it’s the young, black supermarket clerk who stumbles on the family’s macabre ritual reenactment but saves herself at the end. And even in Once, Walsh’s musical theatre book adaptation of the Irish indie film, the female character has a kind of strength and resilience that makes her admirable.
But Walsh’s world is a masculine one, full of hyper-activity and homosociality that goes unremarked and enacted without being embraced. (The Feminist Spectator 2 [FS2], my partner Stacy Wolf, says that in a post-show talk-back here at the Galway International Arts Festival, Walsh said the play is about “masculinity under pressure.”) His is a world in which men aren’t powerful and don’t necessarily succeed, but control their worlds with a ruthlessness imagination that has dire effects on those even less powerful.
Walsh’s commitment to storytelling, to the intricacies of language, and most importantly, to ritual, is as exciting as it is in, for instance, Genet, although the ritualistic rehearsals of The Maids work to a very different purpose than in The Walworth Farce or in Walsh’s latest play, Ballyturk.
Ballyturk is the centerpiece of the 2014 Galway International Arts Festival, an event that’s long been hospitable to Walsh’s work. In 2011, I saw his equally compelling revival of his play Misterman, in which Cillian Murphy (who also stars in Ballyturk) performed the one-person play with a concentration and physical commitment I’m not sure I’d ever seen before onstage. Because I remember Murphy’s performance more clearly than I do Walsh’s text, FS2 reminded me that Misterman was about a guy who seemed weirdly young and perhaps mentally challenged, who was working out something about the church and his mother.
And perhaps it turns out that he’s been killing young women for a long time; the story is rather violent and misogynist. It’s also oblique. I remember something about violence, something about living in a small town, something about the external constraints on your existence that propel you without letting you feel free, something about not regretting anything but constantly repeating some sort of personal and social wound . . . I don’t remember the what of the play so much as I remember the how of the production.
The motifs and the performance mode in Ballyturk are remarkably similar. In fact, some critics here in Galway murmur that Walsh is repeating himself. Fair enough, but he’s so without imitators, I don’t mind him rehearsing his own recurrent themes. Ballyturk is played at such a high physical and emotional pitch, and performed with such impeccable verve and zeal, it’s reductive to accuse the play or the production of being thematically or philosophically static.
In any case, that’s not Walsh’s point. Mikel Murfi, the superb Irish actor who, along with Stephen Rea, stars with Cillian Murphy in Ballyturk, remarked after a performance that Walsh and the cast are less interested in generating meaning or delineating character than they are in creating an atmosphere. They want the production to have a nearly subconscious effect on the audience way beyond describing what it was about.
Still, if Ballyturk derives from Walsh’s own canon, it also refers to other absurdists. Sartre’s No Exit is here in what we soon learn is a room these two men can’t leave. Irish writer Emma Donoghue’s novel Room is referenced, too, as it becomes clear that the world “1” and “2” (as they’re called) inhabit is the only one they’ve ever known. “1” (Cillian Murphy) listens in on conversations on the other side of their walls, using a funnel to channel the sounds of other people engaging in lives outside their tiny realm. But these people signify as little as the characters of Ballyturk, the possibly fictional town that “1” and “2” (Mikel Murfi) bring to life in their relentless rehearsal of what it might mean to be alive.
Waiting for Godot also resonates here, although the iconic bowler hats are replaced by a leather 1970s hurling helmet that Murphy wears, apparently to keep “1” from hurting himself when he suffers what appear to be seizures. And Murfi sports only what the script calls a “ginger mullet” on his first appearance, when he’s revealed just beyond the stark spotlight in which Murphy delivers his initial urgent monologue. Murfi wears nothing but briefs and is covered in talcum powder; he eats a package of crisps, which he folds and shoves into his underwear when he’s done. Then he takes the dust buster he’s holding under his arm and vacuums around Murphy’s feet.
These odd images and actions set the rules for Ballyturk’s alternative reality. The beginning of “1” and “2’s” ritual’s is signaled by a cuckoo clock that launches itself aggressively from its unassuming wooden box and into the room with a loud cry. The men draw back the musty rust-colored curtain that covers the back wall to reveal “Ballyturk” written across the top in neon tubing, over a collection of line drawings of people’s faces. These, it seems, represent the town’s residents. When “2” throws a dart at the wall, the men enact the characters on whom it lands, one speaking through a microphone and the other embodying the roles.
They tell nonsensical stories that add up to very little. The stories also go by so quickly and are spoken so fast, it’s difficult to know if we’re supposed to make anything of them or not. As Murfi remarked after the performance I saw, by the time you grab on to what’s happened and what it might mean, the play is speeding on to the next thing. Walsh and the actors intentionally make it impossible to keep up with the play intellectually—you have to simply experience it viscerally.
But Murphy and Murfi perform the Ballyturk characters with such physical and vocal specificity that the gallery of eccentric but somehow familiar village types become charming to watch. Murfi has a putty face with a broad forehead and a protruding chin (and extensive Le Coq training) that he uses to great advantage creating utterly individual cartoon versions of these characters to amuse Murphy’s “1.”
Both actors assume the high, singsong, Irish-accented voices of Ballyturk villagers, performing in ways that are almost beyond stereotype, they’re done with such urgent speed and somehow, need. The men appear to comfort themselves with these characters; their performances are moments of self-soothing that require great investments of energy.
And of props: the big wide stage is soon littered with stuff. This room might have no exit—or finally, the only way out at which we all arrive, in the end—but its several closets and microwave keep filling inexplicably with things that fall out when their doors open. For example, when the shelf above the wardrobe opens, a large collection of odd shoes tumbles to the floor. A similar closet across the room expels fluorescent yellow shoes and other objects that scatter across the floor. Murphy finds a pair of yellow high heels that he briefly dons and then kicks high into the theatre’s flies, where they disappear.
All this is done with no commentary, but with the gusto and determination that implies these men have done it all before. Although we don’t know where this is going, they do, which lets you watch with confidence, curiosity, and not a little awe.
Walsh’s play requires not just suspension of disbelief, but a willingness to forego all the conventions of narrative and just be carried along by the very fast flow of the alternate universe he and his actors create. Why do “1” and “2” shower and then cover themselves in talc? Why are they surprised when a potted flower appears on their wall from nowhere? Why does “1” break all his black 45 records against the wall? How does the record player (as that’s what it is, an old-fashioned turntable) turn itself on and play music when “2” stamps his foot against the floor? Why does “1” carry around a knife, but break the rules of stage action by never using it? Is Walsh commenting on this theatrical convention, just as he seems to deconstruct so many others? Every spectator could answer these questions differently. The strange joy of Ballyturk is how Walsh and the actors leave the work of meaning-making up to each of us.
Nonetheless, in all that running across the very wide stage of Galway’s Black Box Theatre, and in all that tumult in a room that seems to have literally no exit, until its back wall ominously folds down to reveal a green hill with a man in a dark suit perched on it with his back to the audience, meaning lingers as inexorably as death. Because death, ultimately, is what Ballyturk is about. Two-thirds into this 90-minute roar of an evening, the men’s commotion comes to an abrupt stop when that wall folds down, and Stephen Rea’s rather effete, imperious “3” enters to disrupt their on-going ritual enactments. “1” and “2” pause their frantic routine to observe “3” with the fear and trembling that people experience at the appearance of angels, or devils, or messiahs. He could be all three.
“3” demands tea, and biscuits, and finally, asks that they choose which one of them will join him on the other side of the wall. His final demand wrenches the two original men apart and breaks down their ritual. After he leaves and the wall swings back into its implacable place, “1” and “2” try to recuperate. But instead, their ritual intensifies, so that their impersonations and routines seem even more desperate and frantic.
The production flies by, so that connections and echoes become apparent on a delay. For example, I caught Murphy say the word “freedom” at one point, and then admonish himself that “we don’t use that word.” Later, when he’s imagining the world beyond the back wall, to which “3” has beckoned one of them, he pictures it full of beauty and air and, in fact, freedom, which persuades “2” that “1” should be the man to leave, even though his exit leads only toward death. In its stampede of words and action, Ballyturk addresses what language makes possible and what it constrains.
Ballyturk is full of life, of two men living now, with history fading and the future disappearing. They share only a common present. Who they are and how they got there doesn’t matter; they exist. Although they tumble over one another in continual physical proximity, their intimacy doesn’t appear sexual but something more primal. They seem oddly childlike. And in their inexplicable interconnectedness, they enact a relationship based on mutual need and even love.
It’s a pleasure to watch two talented men on stage together simply being present and connected—not competing for a woman or for power, but just somehow surviving in close relationship. “3’s” appearance highlights their connection even more, as he introduces power into the room. He lords something over them. He intimates a past by telling them they look older and saying, “Did you think I wouldn’t be back?” He presents the promise and the threat of a future. “3” says,
–to continue living—to remain upright and to be able to carry on searching for something other than what you have—some love or money or experience or cat or cake or son or anything at all—something which makes you continue without the mindfulness of it all ending at any moment—for everything is here and we are here to lay down legacy—to give life purpose by reaching its edge. (Slight pause.) And it’s time for you two and for what you’ve made—time for one of you to walk away and into your passing. In leaving you’re giving shape to life—some design and purpose for being what you are—for this is the order that all life demands—(Slight pause.) it needs a death.
Ballyturk is about death, but it’s also about language and what it tells us, what it can describe and what it can’t, and about how the body, too, is necessary for making meaning even as it fails and limits us. (Rea’s character, “3,” has a wonderful monologue about his hands, in which he anthropomorphizes them in relation to cigarettes.)
The play is familiar but surprising (especially when that back wall falls so late in the play and with an unexpected entrance at the end). It’s also quite moving, as it gestures toward how we build our lives together. What’s the difference between these characters’ routine and mine—sleeping, showering, telling stories, feeding myself and others, doing things that I think might have meaning, all regulated by time as impervious as the cuckoo clock that pops out from the wall of “1” and “2’s” room?
The only living thing that invades the hermetic space of Ballyturk is a large fly, which sound designer Helen Atkinson evokes with eerie perfection. It moves precisely around the room, as “1” tries frantically to catch the fly and save it. (He puts it in the cuckoo clock, from which it’s bound to reappear.) The sentience of another life, one that can’t be controlled by routine, is the only thing that disturbs the rigid surface of the stuffy room in which “1” and “2” play out their rituals.
Another fly punctuates Room 303, a 13-minute audio monologue Walsh wrote that seems a companion piece to Ballyturk. Four or five spectators listen at a time, in a room within an art gallery constructed for the occasion. The monologue (voiced by Niall Buggy) tells us we’ve gathered in a down-at-the-heels hotel room where the elderly man we hear speaking has come to die. My three fellow spectators and I perched uneasily on the few chairs placed around the room. One of us was brave enough to sit on the edge of the bed, where the man, were he physically present, would be lying. Instead, we hear his disembodied voice, describing his weariness with a life spent traveling and visiting and sharing tea and biscuits, only to arrive at the end of his road in this blank room. The only action occurs when the man reports that a fat fly lands at the bottom of the bed and crawls up his leg.
Room 303 is quiet where Ballyturk is loud, and still where the other production is frenetic, and contained where the play is out of control. Niall Buggy’s voice, playing the man on the tape, describes his resignation about reaching the moment when there will be no more rituals and no more repetitions. The hotel room is sterile, impersonal, and nearly empty. In Ballyturk, the room is idiosyncratic and personal, chock full of things that may or may not mean something.
They go well together, these two Walsh plays—one epic and somehow insightful, the other intimate and poignant. And the Galway International Arts Festival loves Walsh enough to do them both at once.
The Feminist Spectator