Ballyturk*** (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: September 27, 2014 in Theatre

Ballyturk_poster_notitleIt’s Irish, it’s absurdist and it’s on at the National, so it must be something to do with Samuel Beckett, right? Well, just a little. Writer/director Enda Walsh’s latest play is 50% comedy, 50% drama and 100% unfathomable, making it very difficult to believe that it comes from the man who wrote the placid and unerringly logical Once. Two men, known simply as 1 (Cillian Murphy) and 2 (Mikel Murfi), occupy the same space, almost the size of an aircraft hangar, but with household fixtures and fittings around the walls. Crucially, the space has no windows or doors. The men may be brothers, or flatmates or whatever, the space may or may not be located in the town of Ballyturk. A promising start sees them undertaking daily rituals to the accompaniment of ABC’s Look of Love in a beautifully choreographed physical comedy routine that is reminiscent of Morcambe & Wise, who, after all did more than anyone to popularise absurdist comedy. Similar routines, performed to similar 1980s hits crop up throughout, interspersed in the first half with periods of nonsensical dialogue, during which the play sags. The pair’s Oirish banter often sounds as if it has been extracted from a particularly feeble episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys and, about half an hour in, enjoying the play becomes an even bigger challenge than understanding it. The set may be hermetic, but the auditorium has doors and there are a few occasions when there is a strong temptation to use them. However, this is a play of two halves, albeit, with an appropriate lack of logic, one without an interval. The arrival of 3 (Stephen Rea) through a magically disappearing wall, sees a change from comedy to sinister, surreal drama. He could be the Grim Reaper or the long-awaited Godot (perhaps Beckett does make a contribution), who knows? He offers up a karaoke version of the Cahn/Styne classic Time After Time and then delivers a speech of intense, grim beauty. The tone has now changed completely and much of what follows, spoken and visual, has a brutally poetic feel that creates a hypnotic effect. Now, the play works because of its absurdity and not in spite of it and it seems that the only thing that might loosen its grip would be an injection of logic. At this performance, many of the National’s typical grey-haired clientele looked bewildered, but even they would have to acknowledge three superb performances. It all goes to show that you don’t need to understand something to enjoy it, or perhaps to not enjoy it.

Performance date: 26 September 2014

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