Cillian Murphy – Misterman (Image: The Telegraph.co.uk)
This weekend I went to see Enda Walsh’s Misterman at the National Theatre, starring Cillian Murphy. I have been interested in the work of Messrs Walsh and Murphy since Disco Pigs. I had previously read the play, so I had some idea of what might unfold. I found myself quite surprised by their interpretation.
The play opened with an almost Chaplinesque routine by Murphy, who performed the role of Thomas Magill, the resident religious fanatic of a small Irish town called ‘Innisfree’. Entertaining as it was, I felt this comic introduction undermined the play slightly. Although I liked the ‘send-up’ aspect of the piece, and the comedy did allow for a slow build-up to the frankly horrifying conclusion of the story, I found the frantic-comic aspect overplayed to the point where it took the shock out of the action, and sapped the play of some of its dramatic power.
Despite my reservations, Murphy gave a rich and highly entertaining performance. He displayed masterful characterization, and was particularly dazzling as the elderly Mrs O’Leary, and the saucy cafe proprietor, Mrs Cleary. His ability as an actor to blur the gender line never ceases to impress me. He was utterly believable as he imitated the various village people he encountered on his travels through the town.
Whilst the production was strongest with Murphy as its leading (or only!) man, I felt the stage/set design was the weakest element. I think this piece would thrive as ‘immersive’ theatre. The depth of the set, perhaps intending to highlight Thomas’s isolation, only served to alienate the audience in my opinion. Colourful bulbs lit up inexplicably (unless I was missing a point), and scattered halogen crosses were illuminated occasionally, which distracted and confused me. Furthermore, the simple device of using a tape recorder to communicate the ‘voices’ of the village was converted into a series of ‘reel to reel’ recorders which Thomas would activate throughout the play. I thought these just shattered the illusion by over-emphasising the technology, although they did allow for Murphy to move around the space, and served as ‘direction’, as well as emphasising Thomas’s eccentricity. It felt too elaborate, and I thought the use of an old Walkman might be more authentic. However, overall I found myself questioning the set at times when I wanted to be too absorbed in the drama to notice it. The friend I went with really liked the set, and she found the depth of the set really interesting. It did give a sense of his isolation – this local madman in his warehouse of madness. In fairness to Murphy, he did use the space very well, and the upper balcony transformed into the local community centre disco with ease.
The limitations resulted in what was a very powerful performance from Murphy seeming distant, and not entirely believable. McGinn’s madness was bordering on parody, and so for me, the dramatic potential that is contained within the fanatical rants, imaginative language and meandering journey of the script was never fully realised. From what I have read, I understand that this might be the intention of the writer, who wanted to send up particular aspects of Irish life. I still felt that the effort to ‘laugh at ourselves as Irish’ eroded the more dramatic aspects in the play. Instead of finding the ‘angel’ Edel and her prank cruel and sad, I found the whole idea of Edel faintly ridiculous, and not entirely convincing. The production might have benefited from a more intimate setting, a smaller stage, and a more innovative or subtler use of lighting. Give me the Cottesloe over the Lyttleton for this one, any day!
Criticisms aside, I had a very enjoyable night at the theatre, and it wasn’t just because of those baby blues! The play made me laugh out loud, but the momentum was not always maintained – not an easy challenge, especially as Murphy had to command our attention for a full ninety minutes all by himself. The ending failed to shock me in the way it did when I read the play, which I took as a sign that I was beginning to lose interest at the point that is meant to be most climactic.
However, I will give it a 7/10, and would not dissuade anyone from watching it!
Oh, and I will never pronounce ‘bananas’ the same way again. Some truly hilarious Irish accents were bounced around the stage.