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

Review – The Irish Times

**** Cillian Murphy ‘underlines his character’s restless spirit with manic eyes and a multi-octave voice’, while Mikel Murfi depicts ‘gormlessness with spry physical genius’, in Ballyturk.

Ballyturk, a place that may or may not exist, still seems strangely familiar. We are in a huge sealed room, a sparse industrial space of light greys and rust browns, designed by Jamie Vartan, where two men frantically fill the time in daily routines, 1980s pop songs and hyperkinetic story telling.

In a madcap soap opera, they select characters from a gallery with the throw of a dart, split eccentric role play and grandiloquent narration between them, and furiously inscribe some sort of reality, out of nothing. In short, they are trapped, exhilaratingly and unnervingly, in an endless Enda Walsh play.

The two nameless character, a reedy Cillian Murphy, who underlines his character’s restless spirit with manic eyes and a multi-octave voice, and Mikel Murfi’s older protector, depicting gormlessness with spry physical genius, are hardly aware of that – they have been entombed here for a long time. But, as writer and director of Landmark and GIAF’s production, Walsh scatters arch self-references through their world: jumbled props, small-town meditations, co-dependent character dynamics and surreal set pieces that recall his entire oeuvre, and all the snack foods familiar from his junk-culture absurdism. He even performs a very discreet cameo role.

That might sound like self-parody, but Walsh seems intent on ushering his stagecraft towards a more profound seriousness, something underlined with the visceral portent of Teho Teardo’s solemn music and the arrival, by means of a coup de théâtre, of Stephen Rea.

Rea’s figure, urbane and quietly commanding, may strike you either as a god or a reaper – “I’m a collector,” he tells the nonplussed pair. “That’s why I’m here.” – but he most resembles a playwright; he calls the shots. Perhaps that’s why Walsh’s conscience seems to gets tangled up, relishing the poetic fumblings of the players, but constructing lengthy monologues for Rea with no particular function or voice. It’s strangely anti-climactic, as though Godot had shown up.

The dilemma Rea offers, though, shadows the play’s fundamental concern: that there is more to existence than we can comprehend. “I thought we knew everything there was to know,” says Murphy, shaken to his core by the discovery of a new creature – a fly. “It feels like we may be less of what we were in a place we don’t wholly know.” But while Murphy yearns for freedom, in sleep, in dreams, in distended memories, Murfi is in love with the prison, the sustaining rituals, the finitudes of known space.

Even in the self-reflexive theatre of Walsh, there’s something fresh in layering the play with metaphors for life and death. Like Murphy’s childishly drawn map of Ballyturk, plays are also bound by limits, strict and quantifiable, while seeking to describe something much greater. Ballyturk is dark and giddily disturbing, not because it constructs a place, or a prison, but because it is provides a springboard, propelling us into the unknown.

Until Jul 27, then tours to Olympia Theatre, Dublin Aug 7-23, Cork Opera House, Aug 26-30 and the National Theatre, London Sep 11-Oct 11

Written by Peter Crawley in The Irish Times 15.07.14

Review – Irish Examiner

****

Boasting stellar performances from Cillian Murphy, Stephen Rea and Mikel Murfi, Enda Walsh’s new play, Ballyturk, which he also directs, is another fine collaboration with Landmark Productions and Galway Arts Festival, with whom he enjoyed success with Misterman in 2012.

The play revisits familiar Walsh terrain: characters stave off trauma and isolation through the dynamic power of words. In Ballyturk, two nameless brothers (Murphy and Murfi), confined mysteriously to a small room, take solace in inventing a mundane Irish village. They act out the lives of the fictional town’s inhabitants. Yet Murphy’s melancholic character is haunted by a sense of the world outside.

When Rea’s character suddenly — and brilliantly — enters the fold, a way out emerges. But it’s not the freedom for which Murphy’s nervy soul has longed.

As ever with Walsh, Ballyturk is easy on the ears. Where Samuel Beckett’s gift was to pare away ruthlessly at language, Walsh conjures a Beckettian world but, by contrast, pumps it with linguistic poesy. These impeccable actors feast on the mighty spiel. But it’s not just Walsh’s dialogue that hits the spot. There is a riotous, rococo energy to the visuals and the sound design: for example, when Murphy launches high-heel shoes into the air, or Rea breaks into crooner mode. It’s delirious and captivating.

But the play stumbles thematically. Walsh has long been querying the way people construct their worlds, but the blend of pathos and enigma here — enticing as it is — is too portentous, without ever having much to say. Nevertheless, this is thrilling theatre, visceral and cerebral, hilarious and sad. And its bold, ominous final scene will live long in the memory.

Written by Padraic Killeen in the Irish Examiner 16.07.14

Review – The Galway Advertiser

“BEAUTIFUL, HILARIOUS, dark as death.” So tweeted actress Olwen Fouéré after seeing the opening of Enda Walsh’s new play Ballyturk, which got the Galway International Arts Festival off to a flying start at the Black Box yesterday evening.

Fouéré aptly summed up this stunning offering from Landmark Productions and the GIAF. The play centres on two nameless housemates played by Mikel Murfi and Cillian Murphy and we watch their frenetic daily routines which encompass everything from uproariously funny knockabout dancing to 1980s pop songs to their energetic evocations and impressions of the many inhabitants of the village of Ballyturk.

Murfi’s genius for physical comedy and expressiveness is given full rein under Enda Walsh’s skilful direction and Cillian Murphy is equally brilliant as he runs the gamut from manic non-stop activity to moments of pained bewilderment.

Ballyturk at times recalls Walsh’s The Walworth Farce which also featured characters shut off from the outside world and who devise stories to make sense of their existence. Every now and again Murphy’s character grasps for some meaning outside of the tales of Ballyturk – a place which might only exist in his and Murfi’s imagination – and his quest for knowledge and identity is very affecting. What is also affecting is the very real and deep affection which exists between these two men.

Then Stephen Rea arrives on the scene – laconic, enigmatic, droll and sinister – his appearance has a momentous bearing on Murphy and Murfi’s existence. The scene where a microphone drops from the ceiling and Rea suavely takes it and croons a love song is worth the price of admission on its own.

Walsh packs a heck of a lot into Ballyturk – madcap comedy alongside meditations on identity; imagination; love; life and death – and he and his three superb actors carry it off with immense flair. Praise is also due to the contributions of designer Jamie Vartan, lighting designer Adam Silverman, sound designer Helen Atkinson, and composer Teho Teardo. Bravos and bouquets to one and all.

Written by Charlie McBride in the Galway Advertiser 15.07.14

Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk: dabbling with mortality in our own private universes – The Irish Times

Enda Walsh didn’t break it to his daughter gently. “I can still remember her little face and that incredulous look on it,” says the playwright, in a tone somewhere between empathy and amusement. The six-year-old had just asked her father about death, and Walsh, the maverick dramatist, decided to level with her. “Yeah, yeah, yeah – we do, we die. Seriously. We die.”

His voice takes on the calm persuasiveness of the customer-service line when there’s nothing more they can do for you. “But,” he added, “we don’t think about that every day. We fall in love and we plan out things and we go to work and we go on holiday and we live a life.” But you carry the certainty of death around with you, she persisted. “Yeah, we do,” he said, “and as we get older, maybe that thought gets bigger, but you can’t think about it all the time.”

Listening to Walsh’s story, told with his customary spry intensity, it isn’t clear exactly whom he was trying to persuade. For the playwright, the realisation of mortality set something in motion, and it chimed with another memory: when he watched the actorCillian Murphy rehearsing for Landmark’s recent production of Walsh’s Misterman in New York, at the full tilt of his magnetic performance, while their production manager, standing less than a metre away, worked on, quietly indifferent.

“Of course. That’s what we are as people,” thought Walsh. “We just sort of exist, very simply, in our own little universes.” Slowly, an idea for a play began to take form. How can people live a regular life if they know they are just a heartbeat away from oblivion? And what would happen if two adult friends, played by Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi, experienced his daughter’s dramatic realisation? How would they go on?

There has always been something boyish about Walsh, still slender-framed, uninhibited and given to such runaway enthusiasm that his words sometimes barely keep pace with his thoughts. That spirit has helped to define his theatre: ferociously comic, madly affecting, where characters tend to seal themselves within claustrophobic spaces – pigpens, beds, disintegrating flats – or behind thickets of playful, distorted language. You might look for Walsh’s signature in his syntax alone, where words multiply, tumble and shatter, but he is more focused on a bracing approach to form.

“I want to hold people,” he tells me. “I don’t want to bamboozle them. I want to kinetically move them. After years of making work, the ambition is still to keep theatre alive, dangerous, unknowable and dreadfully f**king exciting for an audience.”

Walsh gives little away about Ballyturk, his first original play in four years, which he is also directing for Landmark and Galway Arts Festival. “I’m still looking at it and going, ‘Yes, but what does it mean, and where is it?’ ” he says. “But I know that it’s probably a play about friendship. It’s about putting a real, loving, deeply caring friendship under extreme pressure and seeing what’s going to happen to it.”

The casting is not incidental; Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi are frequent collaborators and close friends. “Although we’re supposedly artists, we’re still men, so we wouldn’t ordinarily have conversations about what our friendships are. At least in the rehearsal room we can work that out through these characters.” The third character, played byStephen Rea, is a stranger making a precipitous visit. “I love those characters who arrive in,” says Walsh. “It’s a very Irish thing: the person at the door.”

Just like the characters, the audience for Ballyturk must try to figure things out – the challenge and reward of Walsh’s plays are to learn their logic. “It asks that fundamental question we always ask in theatre, as soon as we sit down: ‘Where are we?’ It really examines that. The characters seem to be asking that and not knowing; both the physical state and the mental state.”

Initially, Walsh had wanted to give their search a firmer foundation by basing Ballyturkon a real place. “I thought, yeah, Ballyturk is the most central town in Ireland. Then I thought, I must check that, actually.” He was delighted to discover that it didn’t exist on any map. “My God, that’s even better. I’ve just imagined a whole town.”

Walsh, unlike other Irish playwrights with international careers, chooses to premiere his works in Ireland before they tour internationally. “With something like this, I want to talk first of all to Irish people before I go out there and talk to other people.”

There is something intrinsically Irish, he thinks, in his form. “The shape of the plays often begins realistically,” he says, “like we do as Irish people on a night out. And then drink is taken, and the edges are smashed off, then, two o’clock in the morning, the whiskey’s out and really strong existential questions begin, veering on the maudlin, and then it becomes chaotic.”

Ballyturk may be different, he thinks, led by simple questions while taking huge risks and, just as he previously regarded The Walworth Farce as a personal breakthrough, “the mothership of many plays to come”, he feels the same of this new work.

He takes a particular pride in the fact that even his most brusque and abstract plays have never tried to alienate the audience. “It’s just that the form of theatre, for me, needs to be arresting and strange and odd and ‘What the . . . ?’ You know, [theatre] is not a mirror,” he says, dismantling the cliche with relish. “It’s not a mirror . . . It’s a bin lid.”

Ballyturk has sold out at Galway International Arts Festival, where it runs from July 10th to 27th. It will then tour to Dublin, Cork and London

Written by Peter Crawley in the Irish Times – 21.06.14