Playwright and director Enda Walsh must have staggering self-confidence: no topic is too chunky to chew over for the ninety minutes of what he defines as the ‘kinetically crazy theatre’ of Ballyturk, his latest dramatic extravaganza. What is the meaning of time, mortality, innocence, death, reality, love, eternity and freedom? Brave, existential questions cram Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival’s sell-out dramatisation of Walsh’s musings. The problem is, though the production values are stylish and convincing, and the acting persuasive, answers to any of the above are deemed too prosaic to be articulated. Everything feels a little self-absorbed and meaning is left largely to the viewers’ disposition. This feels to be a little bit of a cop-out by Walsh, Ballyturk is less play and more ‘performance piece’: questions are posed and any replies are hints, or tones, or flavours conjured up by the textures and surreal images woven in sound and fury on the stage; thus the audience eventually has to come up with its own answers (and narrative).
Two un-named characters, 1 and 2, (Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi) are confined to designer Jamie Vartan’s windowless, doorless basement of vast, grey poured-concrete slabs pasted with torn paper scrawled with childlike charcoal sketches and furnished with worn Melamine-wood kitchen, bed and cupboards. Like slats of a giant grating, great concrete joists overhead disperse a stark light into this prison that the programme describes as being in ‘No time. No place.’ To a soundscape (Helen Atkinson/Teho Teardo) of strange cello creaks, 1980s hits by ABC, Blancmange and Nena (they’ve got to mean something…) and voices emanating from the walls, Characters 1 and 2 are compelled to imagine and then enact a world that they have not actually seen but sense might exist outside their Fred West/ Josef Fritzl-echoing confinement. Hours and then days pass and the minutiae of shared living and their repeated vignettes of Ballyturk’s inhabitants become more and more frenzied (think super-charged Walworth Farce or Misterman) as they struggle to survive, search for the meaning of life, hunt for words to define their experience or just attempt to dispel boredom. In a dramatic coup-de-theatre that cannot be spoiled here, Character 3 (Stephen Rea) enters from a Magritte-like surreality that might (or might not) exist outside this basement. We are in Bishop Berkeley territory now, for do our two characters exist at all without Character 3’s conception of them? Character 3 is a quiet counterpoint to the frenetic desperation on stage: an anti-climactic, chain-smoking deus ex machina who terrifies Characters 1 and 2, then after a Jenga competition with biscuits and a Pythonesque diatribe on the uselessness of hands, presents an ultimatum and Ballyturk builds to a roaring, stomping, disc-hurling, wall-banging, body-convulsing finale.
Everything that is challenging, disturbing and distinctive about Walsh’s work is here: wildly black and mischievous humour, acerbic - sometimes malicious - glimpses of a claustrophobic, rural, Middle-Ireland existence, a ravishing of words, and ever extravagant drama. It is also a work of fashionable, post-modern intertextuality: mostly consisting of style references (slapstick, plays-within-plays, mimicry and repetition) to Walsh’s own work, but Joyce is there, so is Beckettian futility and linguistic experimentation, Pinteresque monologues and physical tics, and even a Sinatra tribute. The work is clearly a dramatized stream of Walsh’s consciousness. But despite Landmark and GIAF’s no-holds-barred theatrical whizzbangs, the writing feels a little unfinished, ill-disciplined even, as if the process of creation was too enjoyable to suffer a critical eye. It doesn’t quite hang together. In particular, making a connection between the hour-long portrayal of Ballyturk’s inhabitants and the appearance of the omnipresent Character 3 is ‘definitely Honours Level’, as one audience member was overheard commenting.
However, Walsh’s direction of his own writing has allowed the piece to evolve as a fuel-injected performance vehicle for Messrs Murphy and Murfi; a pedestal for their considerable acting experience and it is engrossing to observe. Cillian Murphy is a pulsating quiver of energy, always sure-footed in his bursts around the stage with tremendous vocal texture and range. Mikel Murfi employs and enjoys every physical jape, mime convention and facial gurn ever executed on a stage and Stephen Rea is a quietly authoritarian controller. All actors bounce off each other - literally and figuratively - in honing Walsh’s dramatic ideas: indeed, it is difficult to imagine the play produced elsewhere without this particularly potent triumvirate of high-ranking actors.
The team that created 2012’s Misterman were always expected to produce challenging theatre of an impressive cinematic quality and Ballyturk is just about that. What is most peculiar about this slightly self-indulgent work, however, is that it does pack some emotional punch. It is difficult to fathom quite how or why it happens. The final, exploitative image almost shouldn’t work, but, perhaps bred of the performers’ vigorous belief in Walsh’s vision, combined with the authority of audience-bludgeoning dramatic effects, the outcome is strangely, unexpectedly moving.