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DruidMurphy at the Playhouse
DruidMurphy – Conversations on a Homecoming,
A Whistle in the Dark, Famine
Dir. Garry Hynes
18-25 August, Oxford Playhouse
It is no overstatement to say that DruidMurphy, which came to the Oxford Playhouse for a week in August, is a major theatrical event. The trilogy of plays by Tom Murphy, produced by the Galway-based theatre company Druid, appeared in the UK as part of the Cultural Olympiad during a five-month international tour which has included runs at the Hampstead Theatre in London and the Lincoln Center in New York, and which will culminate in October with performances at the Dublin Theatre Festival and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. This cycle of plays has been preceded by great expectations on every stop of its tour, which began in Galway in May, and it does not fail to fulfil them.
In Oxford, as elsewhere, audiences had the choice of seeing the plays singly or watching all three in succession. Each play has a unique mood and force and stands alone as an impressive production, but the DruidMurphy project can only be properly understood by an audience member who has spent nine hours in the company of these actors, in the claustrophobic and often very frightening worlds of Murphy’s plays, brilliantly translated into life by the director Garry Hynes, who co-founded Druid in 1975 and remains its artistic director.
Murphy is one of Ireland’s most important living playwrights, and the three plays in this cycle address a major theme in the Irish experience, emigration. In Conversations on a Homecoming, set in the 1970s, and A Whistle in the Dark, set a decade earlier, the emigrant’s experience is pushed to the fore. In Famine, a more experimental piece, the Great Hunger of the 1840s is considered through the experience of a single community. Presenting the plays in reverse chronological order, taking the audience back in Irish time, was a way of unpicking the historical narrative which has determined the positions in which Murphy’s characters find themselves. The set changes for each play supported this—from the depressed interior of the County Galway pub in Conversations on a Homecoming we moved to the bright but basic living space of the Coventry house in A Whistle in the Dark. Visible in the background of both, though, was the corrugated iron sheeting, marked with dirt and rust, which was the sole scenery for Famine, as if the material evidence of the twentieth-century stories had to be stripped back in order to reach the older events from which they grew. And Hynes’s Famine looked forward through costume: nineteenth-century dress was reserved for the Anglo-Irish landlord, the policemen, and the priests, while the villagers at the mercy of these authorities and the failing potato crop wore a strange mixture of contemporary clothes—jeans and denim dresses, granddad shirts and hooded tops.
Casting decisions also set the plays in interesting relation to one another. Most members of the company appeared in at least two of the plays, if not all three. Aaron Monaghan turned in three brilliant performances in supporting roles: as Liam, the flash boy done good in Conversations on a Homecoming; as Harry, the wiliest and most ruthless of the fighting brothers in A Whistle in the Dark; and as Mickeleen O’Leary, the prophetic outcast in Famine, whose disability makes him a target for superstitious cruelty.
Alongside Monaghan, Eileen Walsh was the stand-out actor in the ensemble. As Peggy in Conversations her fragile cheerfulness was pitted against the self-righteousness and lazy abuse of her fiancé Tom (Garrett Lombard) to great sympathetic effect. As Betty in A Whistle in the Dark, she carried the role of another put-upon woman with compelling dignity, and more than once in this play, peopled otherwise exclusively by men, she owned the stage. The audience felt the punch which Marty Rea’s Michael, in a sudden cruel break from his supreme cowardice, delivered her. The audience’s need for some comic relief to siphon off the tension of the first two plays was met by Murphy’s dialogue, so ably delivered by these actors, and full of a Syngean comedy which shifts from warm to bleak in a moment.
For Druid, it would seem, context is all. Their publicity sets the trilogy up as a shared inquiry into Irish national identity, “exploring what it means when we call a place home”. The stops on the tour are part of this highly self-conscious process: these travelling plays enact journeys of emigration and return themselves, following the Irish diaspora to theatres in England and America, and coming home to theatres in Murphy’s West of Ireland where all these plays have their roots.
Certainly a historicist approach to these productions enriches an audience’s experience of them. Of course it helps to understand the properly iconic significance of the picture of President Kennedy which hangs above the bar in Conversations on a Homecoming, watching over the characters like the lost father of a broken home. It helps to understand that the emigrant Michael in A Whistle in the Dark is striving for respectability in England at a time when signs in boarding-house windows read, “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”. And it helps to understand that experiences such as Murphy seeks to represent in Famine forced two million Irish people to emigrate. But Murphy’s achievement, so well understood by Hynes and her cast, is to offer plays which shadow these histories but are not overshadowed by them.
Rosie Lavan is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review. She is reading for a DPhil at St Anne’s College, Oxford.