September 29, 2008

An Unholy Trinity of Father, Sons and Ghosts


THEATRE THE WALWORTH FARCE National Theatre: Cottesloe, London ****

What was going on, exactly, in those cramped rooms where Josef Fritzl imprisoned his own daughter for 24 years? How can such things happen without anyone knowing? The Walworth Farce by Enda Walsh might help to explain why so many of us create alternative, secret narratives to run in tandem with the real world.

Walsh is a whirlwind Irish writer, a Dublin-born son of an Abbey Theatre actress whose breakthrough play Disco Pigs 10 years ago was an amazing rollercoaster ride through the dark underbelly of Cork night life; the horrors of day-time Cork life are more creepily evoked in The Walworth Farce, where a crazed father figure, Dinny, compels his two grown sons - one quietly deranged, the other crazily extrovert - to re-enact their childhood, the death of their mother, the smells of roast chicken.

The point is that this has been going on for two decades. The three men are curiously ageless, a sort of Marx Brothers or Three Stooges act, madly cavorting in a 15th-floor council flat near the Elephant and Castle. They are catalytically visited by a Tesco's checkout girl, arriving, like Ruth in Pinter's The Homecoming, to push the action towards a gruesomely unsettling finale.

The playwright moved to London from Cork ten years ago, and this play - and, by all accounts, its companion piece at this year's Edinburgh Festival, The New Electric Ballroom - takes a grip on the displaced Irish psyche in the same way Tom Murphy did many years ago in A Whistle in the Dark. What is the disturbing, subterranean guilt that drives Dinny (Dennis Conway) to create this substitute nightmare? We never know but we recognise it all the same.

Rules of naturalism don't apply here, any more than do notions of narrative logic or social responsibility. The play slips all moorings from reality the moment we see Dinny polishing his trainers and adjusting his ginger toupee, an unruly mop that slides around his bonce like a stoat on a spree. He claims to have once been a painter and decorator, so the transition to brain surgery was only a matter of time. Young Sean is suitably lobotomised.

While Sean (Tadhg Murphy) has been poleaxed by witnessing a murder and becomes an object of inquisition himself, the garishly flamboyant Blake - played with thumping physical bravura by Garrett Lombard - assumes different identities with chameleon quickness and an array of headscarves and reversible frocks.

Speeded up to the hilt of lunacy, the effect of Mikel Murfi's buoyant and super-charged production for the Galway-based Druid company is one of kaleidoscopic re-enactment - of murderous events at mother's wake (she was kicked in the head by a horse), the chattering of relatives and neighbours, the reading of the will, the sad fate of a poodle on a tent pole.

Everything about the "look" of the show is cheap and tacky, from Sabine Dargent's design of three tiny adjacent rooms, to the tangerine yellowness of the costumes, Dinny's brown floral shirt bursting at the buttons, and the League of Gentlemen-style repertoire of face-pulls and comic caricature.

Only Sean ever leaves the flat, and he has been followed home by the supermarket girl Hayley (a deliciously unlikely name for the role played by Mercy Ojelade), whose brief protestation of "normality" is soon submerged in the requirements of the charade. Only the soft singing by Dinny of an old Irish folk song suggests that anything sweet or good-natured remains in the cultural legacy of these sadly displaced self-dramatisers.

These are heady times for Walsh. This play arrives on the South Bank after a storming success in New York, and his second movie, Hunger, co-written with the director Steve McQueen, won the Camera d'Or prize at Cannes this year. His work is a phantasmagorical synthesis of many influences - Joe Orton as well as Pinter, Eugene O'Neill as well as Brian Friel and Martin McDonagh - but he makes his own distinctive stage music in the fury of his writing talent and the irresistible surge of his blatant theatricality. I imagine that hating his plays must be as cathartic as loving them. And you can't say that of too many dramatists.

In rep to 29 November (020-7452 3000)

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