Fans of Samuel Beckett, Buster Keaton, the TV show ‘Lost’ and ’80s electro pop will all find something to enjoy in Enda Walsh’s wilfully cryptic, gorgeously poetic and clownish new play.
Highly strung, sweaty Cillian Murphy and fractionally less highly strung and sweaty Mikel Murfi are two men with no names, living in a strange, ramshackle room. At the start, Murphy is singled out under a spotlight, babbling his way through a weird, unsettling story about a town called Ballyturk, which we later see drawn on the walls of the room. Then the lights slam on, and there’s Murfi, gawping and dopey, clad only in his underpants. This funny moment begins a truly bravura set piece in which ABC’s ‘The Look of Love’ blasts out through the old record player in the corner while the two men blitz through their morning routine – breakfast, dress, shower – with a turbocharged ineptitude and fearless physicality that catapults your heart into your mouth.
Also directed by Walsh, the show runs to 90 minutes, and for at least 89 of them I didn’t reeeeeeally have any idea what was going on. ‘Ballyturk’ is considerably more obtuse than the last Walsh/Murphy hook-up, 2011’s ‘Misterman’, which wasn’t exactly straightforward either. But Murphy and Murfi’s childish, nervous and incredibly physical play is consistently fascinating. For the most part it’s funny as well as occasionally creepy. And just when we wonder if anything is actually going to happen, it really does: with a tremendous roar of mangled strings, the back wall collapses, revealing the figure of Stephen Rea, smoking on a bank of grass with his back to the room – a truly stunning tableaux.
Rea’s character clearly knows what is going on, though Walsh will be damned if he tells us. But the manic textures subside, giving the second half of ‘Ballyturk’ a more meditative quality. Its most dazzling moment is a beautiful speech from Murphy in which he yearns for a world where ‘a boy can run not only on the word “beach” but on the beach itself’.
After a while, Rea departs, and just when it seems Walsh is going to let the play end without explaining anything, there’s a stark revelation that gives all the previous action a brilliant clarity. It’s the most dazzling moment in ‘Ballyturk’s constellation of set pieces.
Written by Andrzej Lukowski for Time Out, 17.09.14
Benedict Nightingale speaks to Enda Wash in The Times ahead of the London opening of Ballyturk at the National Theatre. Click here to read the full article.
So Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien are jointly commissioned to write a sketch for The Morecambe & Wise Show. Over a bottle of absinthe they concoct something like Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk. It has elements of Sartre’s No Exit, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and O’Brien’sThe Third Policeman. But it’s also pure Eric and Ernie: two weirdly innocent men who share a bed but are not lovers, trapped in an endless knockabout farce, putting on “a play what I wrote”.
The result is strange and funny and manic and very, very dark. It is tempting to say that there is nothing quite like it – except, of course, that most of Walsh’s work is quite like it. Which makes Ballyturk a somewhat disconcerting experience: thrilling in its vivid immediacy but just a little dispiriting in its crushing pessimism.
Writers tend to be divisible into explorers who range restlessly and excavators who sift endlessly through the same patch of soil. Walsh is the most extreme excavator in the Irish theatre. It is not just that his plays tend to repeat the same patterns. It is that the patterns they repeat are themselves endless repetitions. He gives us people who are locked into stories they can neither escape nor end.
It is not accidental that Walsh wrote a brilliant play about the myth of Penelope, who weaves a shroud by day and unravels it by night. That’s pretty much what Walsh himself does, weaving and unweaving the same metal cloth.
Thus Ballyturk revisits Walsh’s last collaboration with Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi, Misterman, produced at Galway Arts Festival in 2011, which itself revisited the original 1999 version of the same play. There, Murphy’s isolated character lived in a world of voices that he shaped into the town of Inishfree. Here, Murphy is joined by Murfi onstage and, in contrast to his roaming Misterman persona, closed into a room. But, again, the primary action is the evocation through voices of a fictional town, Ballyturk. The population is similar enough: the shopkeeper, the gossip, the furtive lovers, the ne’er-do-well. This playing out of a repeated scenario, meanwhile, is itself essentially a repeat of another remarkable Walsh play, The Walworth Farce.
These repetitions are not dull; they’re just the way Walsh’s imagination operates. If he were a composer he’d be a minimalist. If he were a poet he would write in deliberately restrictive forms such as the sonnet. He seems to need the rigidity of a confined space and a fixed set of repeating patterns: even in film, it does not seem accidental that the H-blocks of the repeated hunger strikes (Hunger) or the intensely internal world of online relationships (Chatroom) suit his aesthetic.
What matters is the energy he brings to rattling the cages he makes for himself – and it is a phenomenal, overpowering force. The manic quality of much of Ballyturk – the hyped-up physical and mental effort that the two locked-in men have to expend to keep themselves alive – is channelled into an often breathtaking theatricality. Theatre thrives on pressure, and here the pressure gauge is high into the red. Murphy and Murfi are in constant motion because, like sharks, they must move or die. Walsh’s great strength is that he writes this motion. There is a relationship between words and movement (he directs his own play) more seamless than in any Irish dramatist since Beckett. There is no discernible divide between script and performance: language and movement are honed into a single point of attack.
In some ways, watching Ballyturk is more like being at a boxing match than attending a well-behaved play – but without a break between rounds. Walsh’s choreography would indeed be worthy of Eric and Ernie – no mean compliment. One of its pleasures is that it allows Murfi to remind us what a great clown he has always been.
The sheer vitality of these performances, allied to Stephen Rea’s laconic and enigmatic allure as the sinister deus ex machina who enters and controls the enclosed world, makesBallyturk essential viewing. But it does not entirely blow away certain hesitations. One is that, to me at least, the manic energy makes the slower, more melancholic or lyrical moments that are crucial to the play more difficult and problematic. It matters enormously that the viewer is deeply moved by a longer speech of Murphy’s towards the end; I found the shift of tone and tempo hard to assimilate.
Another is that the fictional towns are locked away from any sense of what has happened in Ireland in the past 20 or even 30 years. That may be part of Walsh’s point, but it nonetheless creates a strangely static frame of reference.
The last is that Ballyturk really is astonishingly bleak, with a final coup de theatre that kicks any incipient sense of possibility in the teeth. It plays out the logic of the only alternatives that Walsh seems to admit: either die or play out the same arid rituals over again. It’s a pointed contrast to, for example, Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire, in which the same idea of a repeated story is driven towards resolution. Walsh’s brilliance earns him the right not to do resolutions, but audiences retain the right to wish for them.
Written by Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times 16.08.14
Darragh Reddin reviews Ballyturk in the Metro Herald on 15.08.14. Click here to read the full review.
As Ballyturk is readied for Dublin and Cork, Enda Walsh is already thinking about his next play, writes Alan O’Riordan.
SINCE opening at the Galway Arts Festival last month, Enda Walsh’s new play, Ballyturk, has been greeted with the customary laudatory reviews the Dublin-born playwright gets. A gloomy existential message leavened by Cillian Murphy’s comic virtuosity, Mikel Murfi’s physical language and Stephen Rea’s urbanity. What more could an audience ask for, or a playwright for that matter?
“Yeah, I knew when I sat down to write it I was writing for them,” says Walsh of Murfi and Murphy. “Michael has great instinct, great fire, a great gut. And Cillian’s exactly the same. They collaborate so freely and so easily. To me they are all comedians. And Stephen Rea as well, they are all very instinctual actors. I had Stephen’s voice my head when I was writing it, so I thought, if we’re lucky enough to get him, that will be 90% done. He’s incredible, his stillness, his outlook — it’s very different to the other two.”
Ballyturk is another of Walsh’s places of dislocation. A fictionalised noplace, it evokes Beckett’s Endgame: two characters confined in a room, constructing rituals to give the illusion of meaning, playing scenes with a cast of characters, passing the time that would have passed anyway — a theatrical demonstration of the brevity of existence.
We all have our moments of reflection on the proximity of our ultimate end, but Ballyturk comes from a very specific prompt, says Walsh. “I was having a conversation with my daughter, who was six at the time, and she said, ‘So people die?’ And I said, yeah, they do. ‘All of them?’ Yeah. We all die, I said, you don’t think about that when you’re living. You have a life, you fall in love, you get a house and a job and you busy yourself. She said, ‘Is it always in the back of your mind?’ And I said, no, no, it’s really far back there. As you get older maybe, but you can live with that.
“So, we had this very formative experience for both of us, and I was looking at my six-year-old daughter thinking, she’s processing this. And I thought, when does innocence end? Does it end at that point? That knowing that we are here only for a certain amount of time? Seeing that slow dawning of understanding, I thought, wow, what happens when you take that moment and dramatise it?”
Ballyturk takes that conversation with a child to its heart in the two childish characters who are ultimately confronted with an end of innocence. But Walsh has always specialised in arrested development. One only has to think of the babble of Pig and Runt in Disco Pigs. So, the play is familiar territory for Walsh, yet, using the word “familiar” about his work seems inadequate. Yes, there is much for us to recognise in Walsh’s dramatic worlds, but there is always a heightened, intense strangeness to them too. He gives us isolated characters desperately seeking meaning in their lives while stuck on a hamster wheel of memories.
The New Electric Ballroom, from 2008, was set in a remote fishing village. But its focus was on an interior landscape, with three cut-off souls, sisters Breda and Clara, in their 60s, and Ada, in her 40s, reliving endlessly the frustrated amorous ambitions which took place at the eponymous dancehall.
Before that, in The Walworth Farce in 2006, a family is shackled to the endless retelling of its own private myths, repeatedly playing out their father’s emigration story.
Does any of this thematic material stem from Walsh’s own emigration? On the face of it, one would think not. Walsh moved to London a decade ago with his wife, Jo Ellison, formerly of the Irish Examiner and now fashion editor at the Financial Times. And he looks like an advertisement for London life — lithe, trim, always on the cusp of laughter, Walsh brims with vitality. He is deftly turned out, in a neat dark T-shirt and narrow jeans, with an expensive-looking haircut and tortoiseshell glasses.
Yet there is something in it, he says. “When I was in Cork I thought, you know, I could just sit back here. And that’s not a good place for a writer or any sort of artist to be. You can still make great work wherever you are, but for me it was important that I isolated myself. You’re trying to find something that’s unique to you and that isolation gets you looking at yourself.
“I was in this city of such size, and I started writing these plays about man and his environment, how that affects you. I think that’s what London has done, it’s put a lot of pressure on character and form. I love the wildness and energy of London, and feeling that small puts a lot of pressure on the page. You feel, right, I’m in this massive city, so I need to try and pour something of myself out onto the page.”
Walsh’s creative enterprise has become a pursuit of the fundamentals of theatre and life. His plays are about both, but easy resolutions and story arcs aren’t his thing. “People think playwriting is about story, about putting characters into certain situations, but it’s not. It’s never about that. Your first instinct is what is the atmosphere of it? What are you trying to make people feel? That’s enough to go on. Then the characters begin to form. You sense that there is something there to write, and you start writing. You’re writing about that feeling.”
Walsh goes on to relate a story about the playwright Sarah Kane. Once, when asked if she was writing a play, she replied, “Yeah, yeah. I haven’t written it, but I can hum it.” Right now, he says, the tune of another play is in his head. “It just sometimes comes in and out of my head. My mother has Alzheimer’s so I wonder what her notion of geography is. Is there a way of constructing a play about someone’s world shifting, someone trying to make sense and navigate that into some kind of clarity. It’s a very abstract notion but that’s enough to go on. It’s something about the nature of people trying to understand where they are.”
Written by Alan O’Riordan in the Irish Examiner 04.08.14
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
**** ‘the theatrical values in Ballyturk are magnificent’.
Eithne Shortall reviews the play for The Sunday Times 20.07.14.
Click here to read the full review.
Emer O’Kelly reviews Ballyturk in the Sunday Independent 20.07.14.
Click here to read the full review.