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**** ‘imagine Under Milk Wood interpreted by Buster Keaton … a richly theatrical experience … impeccably acted.’

There’s plenty of ballyhoo around Ballyturk. Written and directed by Enda Walsh, and with a cast comprising Cillian Murphy, Stephen Rea and Mikel Murfi, it is the hottest ticket at this year’s Galway international arts festival. And deservedly so, because it combines manic physical comedy with a meditation on the brevity of our earthly existence.

As so often in Walsh’s plays, especially The Walworth Farce, the main characters inhabit a hermetic world – almost a womb without a view. In this case, they are two men, simply identified as One and Two, who pass the time in speeded-up, silent-comedy rituals and speculating about daily life in an imagined Irish town called Ballyturk. But when the character Three turns up, he not only breaks up the partnership but invites one of the duo into the outer world, en route to inevitable extinction.

It is not the last surprise Walsh springs, but it is as if Beckett’s Godot had unexpectedly materialised. The whole play could, in fact, be seen as an illustration of a potent Beckettian image: “They give birth astride of a grave.” I was less struck by the play’s philosophy than by its sheer physical and verbal exuberance. Much of it consists of a fantasy vision of Ballyturk’s daily existence that makes astonishing demands on the two actors: at one point, Murphy leaps like a gazelle on to a high ledge to become the town’s lager-sipping female storekeeper, while the more granite-jawed Murfi is called on to embody 17 characters in the space of about 30 seconds. Imagine Under Milk Wood interpreted by Buster Keaton and you get the picture.

With the arrival of Stephen Rea, as a cigarette-smoking deus ex machina, the writing acquires a poetic richness that matches its earlier physical mania. When he talks of the transient beauty of life – “for everything is here and we are here to lay down legacy” – the effect is strangely moving. There are a dozen other ways you could interpret the play; I even wondered if it was a dramatisation of the dilemma of the writer creating imagined worlds while enduring partial seclusion.

However you analyse it, Ballyturk offers a richly theatrical experience and is impeccably acted. Cillian Murphy shows he’s a formidable comic athlete, while Mikel Murfi reveals the mimetic skill of a graduate of the Lecoq theatre school, in Paris, and Stephen Rea exudes a compellingly louche omniscience. The great thing is that it’s a play you don’t have to understand in order to enjoy.

Written by Michael Billington in The Guardian 21.07.14