Thursday, 18 September 2014

Theatre review: Ballyturk

Enda Walsh and his regular collaborator Cillian Murphy reunite for Ballyturk, and while this time Murphy doesn't have to carry the whole show on his own like in Misterman, he must be using as much energy as if he was on stage alone again. Walsh is frequently compared to Samuel Beckett, and while the debt he owes has always been obvious, I've always found Walsh's work easier to like, displaying as it does a much better sense of the theatrical than Beckett's, which I find better on the page than on the stage. In Ballyturk the influence is more apparent than ever: Two men who may or may not be brothers, 1 (Murphy) and 2 (Mikel Murfi) are trapped in a windowless, doorless room and have been for longer than they can remember. Their waking hours are built around routines they must follow: Most important of these is that when the cuckoo clock chimes, they must take on the persona of a resident of the fictional village of Ballyturk, and act out their daily lives.

Even their sleep is no longer the refuge it once was, as the two share dreams of doomed rabbits that leave 1 in particular even more jittery when he wakes up.

Ballyturk is an odd, frustrating show. Murphy's frantic energy sees him frequently clambering up the walls and his double act with the clownish Murfi provides a lot of comic moments, all the time overshadowed by an air of foreboding amplified by Teho Teardo's oppressive music. And Jamie Vartan's set is like a vision of madness with a few surprises hidden in it as well.

But the play is wilfully impenetrable, and impressive though the actors' physical performances are they get repetitive, so it's a relief when 3 (Stephen Rea) makes a beautifully-executed dramatic entrance just under an hour in. Casting some doubt on whether Ballyturk only really exists in 1 and 2's minds after all, and offering a dark ultimatum, he's like a malevolent deity quietly controlling the men. Or to continue the Beckett comparison, it feels very much as if Godot's turned up.

There's much to admire in the performances but the play's aggressive obscurity works against it in the end. Its metaphysical musings have undoubted themes of mortality, and the question of the true nature of Ballyturk starts to turn it into a study on the way imagination shapes reality, but 3's parting comment steers the whole thing into a confusing new direction. Sometimes having the meaning stay just out of grasp can be thrilling but Ballyturk starts to feel as if it's simply not letting the audience in, meaning by the end you start to wonder if it actually has something to say after all.

Ballyturk by Enda Walsh is booking until the 11th of October at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

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