Review – New York Times

Some playwrights’ work is so tantalizingly open-ended as to resist either a single, or simple, assessment or point of view. Beckett of course comes to mind. So now does another Irish dramatist, Enda Walsh, whose “Ballyturk,” at the National Theater through Oct. 11 following its world premiere in Galway in July, is likely to invite as many interpretations as there are people who’ve seen it. Opinions may vary sharply as regards even the basics of what takes place, but one thing’s for sure: you won’t quickly forget the experience.

The curtain rises on two men, known solely as 1 (Cillian Murphy) and 2 (Mikel Murfi), who jointly inhabit a high-walled room complete with multiple cupboards, a cuckoo clock, but not a single window — no chance, therefore, of escape. Bound together like some modern-day version of Beckett’s tramps from “Waiting For Godot,” the duo at various points strip down to their underwear, dance and wreak verbal and visual havoc.

Midway through the 90 minutes, the back wall falls away and we are introduced to a somber-suited character called — what else? — 3 (an elegantly laconic Stephen Rea). Some sort of arbiter of doom, this person smokes (“terrible habit,” he remarks), croons the Frank Sinatra standard “Time After Time,” and proffers a deal whereby either 1 or 2 might join him in whatever world lies beyond the hermetically sealed space that 1 and 2 call home. Is 3’s offer an actual release or, rather, a summons unto the grave? Mr. Walsh isn’t saying, having told an interviewer prior to the London opening that “we won’t even begin to make sense — we’re going to leave you to unlock it.”

That this theatrical cryptogram is engaging rather than exasperating owes much to Mr. Walsh’s high-octane production. (The Tony-winning author of the stage adaptation of the film musical “Once” here doubles as his own director.) The two defining performances of Mr. Murphy and Mr. Murfi all but reduce the sound-alike duo to a sweaty wreck by the end, and the men’s teamwork recalls the kind of acting as theatrical combat associated with the heyday of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, a company for whom physicality has always been key. That’s not to minimize writing that mixes deliberate gabble with allusions aplenty — the late-arriving young boy from “Godot” finds a direct equivalent here. But Mr. Walsh acknowledges Beckett only to put him to the side; after all, no one dramatist owns the patent when it comes to meditations on mortality.

The title, incidentally, refers to the fictional village whose citizenry 1 and 2 channel during their banter (we also hear, via tape, the voices of various townspeople), and Irish theater buffs will note the affinity between Ballyturk and the dramatist Brian Friel’s much-loved and comparably invented town of Ballybeg. Mr. Walsh’s words in this case are there to feed the adrenalin rush of the event as a whole: you don’t so much see “Ballyturk” as you do surrender to it.

Written by Matt Wolf for the International New York Times on 25.09.14

Review – Fintan O’Toole: Irish Times

The relationship between words and movement in Enda Walsh’s new play, in which two weirdly innocent men are trapped in an endless knockabout farce, is more seamless than in any Irish dramatist since Beckett

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

Ballyturk to take Dublin and Cork audiences by storm – Irish Examiner

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

Cillian Murphy returns to the stage – Evening Standard

Cillian Murphy hates spoilers. The clue is in the word, says the 38-year-old actor: to spoil something is to ruin it, and why would you want to ruin someone’s entertainment? So we are at a slight loss, he and I, to describe Ballyturk, the play by his old friend and collaborator Enda Walsh, that has lured the star of Peaky Blinders, Batman Begins and 28 Days Later back to the stage. Not least because Ballyturk defies easy description.

“Well, I’ll tell you what, Nick, it’s not really a what’s-it-about play,” Murphy says, the accent of his native Cork thicker in real life. “The themes it deals with are friendship and loss and I think creative life. It is very kinetic, very visceral theatre, but also very precise. He likes to make actors work — I always say you get tremendously fit doing an Enda Walsh show.”

Indeed. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that Ballyturk features Murphy and Mikel Murfi in a huge room, performing manic comic rituals that seem designed to stave off existential dread, including the summoning or impersonation of various colourful characters from the titular Irish town. There’s a lot of mid-Eighties pop music and physical comedy, and towards the end Stephen Rea ominously turns up. There are echoes of Becket’s Waiting for Godot, just as there were echoes of Krapp’s Last Tape in Walsh’s Misterman, the monologue about a religious man recalling past encounters, that Murphy triumphantly bought from Ireland to the National in 2012.

This is the third collaboration between writer and star: in 1996 Murphy, who comes from a family of educators and was then an aspiring rock musician and law dropout, made his stage debut in Walsh’s tale of two Cork tearaways, Disco Pigs, which became a runaway hit. “I was very lucky to have the standard set so high for me,” says Murphy. “We didn’t know at that time he was a significant writer. He was just a young writer with energy and attitude. And great hair. So I was spoilt. It was a break for me. I just love his sense of humour, the way he smashes comedy up against tragedy. His plays could never work on television or film, they are so purely theatrical. And he is a beautiful wordsmith. For an actor to be given these beautiful speeches is a great gift.”

Rock dreams were forgotten and for the next six years Murphy acted mostly on stage, until fame intervened: Danny Boyle cast him as the lead in his zombie film 28 Days Later, bringing out the steel edge to his delicate beauty, the riveting cornflower eyes.

After small parts in Girl with a Pearl Earring and Cold Mountain he auditioned, without much hope, for the lead role in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and was rewarded instead with the scene-stealing part of the Scarecrow. Then came the thriller Red Eye, the Wind that Shakes the Barley for Ken Loach, a stunning turn as a transsexual in Breakfast on Pluto for Neil Jordan, Boyle’s Sunshine and The Dark Knight and Inception for Nolan.

“Suddenly I hadn’t done a play in six years and I said it’s ridiculous that I haven’t collaborated with my close friend and brilliant writer Enda, so we went and did Misterman,” he says. “I realised how much I had missed [theatre]. Getting to act with your whole body is so liberating for me. I am not really known for my comedy, and Enda’s shows allow me to release the funny bones a bit. If your ambition is to improve as an actor, as mine is, theatre is the form to do it. I love that contact between an audience and a performer — we are all sitting in a darkened room and the potential for things to go wrong is so extraordinarily high. So the goodwill between performer and audience is paramount to the thing’s success. And when live theatre does succeed, there’s nothing like it.”

Murphy is fortunate to be working at a time when theatre in both London and Ireland is strong (Ballyturk, like Misterman, premiered in Galway), and when there is less snobbery and greater fluidity for actors to move between media. He has shrugged off implied criticism for appearing in blockbusters. “You follow the word on the page and if the word on the page is strong, the budget is irrelevant,” he says.

Thus he was happy to act on the shoestring-financed Broken for Rufus Norris, the National’s incoming artistic director, and is happy to be in the megabudget In the Heart of the Sea next year. The film is based on the 1820s account of a Nantucket whaling ship “stoved in by this angry white whale, and how the crew survive, or not” that inspired Moby Dick. “It’s Ron Howard directing and he is such a tremendous storyteller,” adds Murphy. “What I loved about it was that it was such a proper old-fashioned movie: men, sea, the elements and a whale. There’s no chance of a spin-off, no aliens. I think people will really respond to it.”

He thinks that mid-budget, intelligent movie making has collapsed, but that the writers moved to TV, dragging the rest of the industry with them, hence the burgeoning nature of small-screen drama. He has spent most of this year filming series two of Peaky Blinders, Steven Knight’s gripping tale of inter-war Birmingham gangsters, in which he plays ruthless kingpin Tommy Shelby. Again, there are no spoilers.

“It’s common knowledge that the story goes south…” he laughs and stops himself. “Not ‘south’ in that sense, let me rephrase that — that Tommy and the gang go to London, and that’s when they encounter Tom Hardy and other London gangs. The story is expanding. I’ve worked with Tom a couple of times and I just love what he can do: he’s very bold in his choices, always pushing it. It’s a brilliant creation Steve Knight wrote for him, and there should be some very exciting scenes in it.”

He hasn’t worked out yet whether the National’s schedule will enable him to see his Peaky Blinders co-star Helen McCrory in Medea, which is playing in the Olivier while Ballyturk is in the Lyttelton. He says he loves London’s restaurants, galleries and theatres but this very private star is equally happy having a quiet life at home in a villagey part of north-west London with his wife, artist Yvonne McGuinness, and their sons Malachy, nine, and Aran, seven, not far from Walsh and his family.

“There’s a lot of people like us there — what my friend called ‘fathers in media’,” he laughs. He and Walsh both rented there when they first moved from Ireland, then basically stayed. “That happens with London: you stay in the place where you land because it’s so vast. I have friends in south London and never see them: it might as well be another country. The times I do go, I say wow it’s beautiful. But it takes so feckin’ long to get there.” Maybe this new stint on the South Bank will encourage him.

Written by Nick Curtis in The Evening Standard on 01.08.14

Review – The Guardian

**** ‘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