Sunday 1 July 2012

Emigration and language seduction in three parts

Conversations on a Homecoming /A Whisper in the Dark / Famine, by Tom Murphy (DruidMurphy, Hampstead Theatre, London, June 30, 2012).

Last week, I said here that Irish emigration wove a single thread through all three of these plays, and that’s certainly true. In the first play, we watch the returning Michael and the stay-at-home Tom clash over Michael’s idealised memories of his East Galway home. In the second, English racism makes a family of Irish thugs, now relocated to Coventry, more thuggish still. And in the third, the landless and poor of 19th Century Ireland must decide whether to starve at home or board the coffin ships for Canada.

But there’s a second, equally persistent thread, running through all three plays too, and that’s Murphy’s repeated warning against the seductive power of beautiful language. Again and again, it’s his characters’ faith in rhetoric, poetic oratory and self-mythology which undermines their fortunes. “Why is everyone calling me a romantic?” the idealistic Michael asks in Conversations. “It’s more polite,” the clear-eyed Tom replies.

Later in the same play, Tom reminds Michael that JJ, the heroic orator of their shared youth, is now a pathetic town drunk. “What did he achieve?” Tom demands. “What was he talking about?” And here’s Michael’s reply: “I don’t know what he was talking about, but wasn’t he right?” For Michael, the eloquence is all – but even he comes to see at the play’s end that any attempt to revive JJ’s dreams would only doom his own prospects, and those of JJ’s daughter besides. “I have to go,” he tells her in the play’s final lines. And go he does.

In Whisper, it’s the Carney family’s determination to cling to their image as Mayo’s “iron men” which brings a senseless death to the family’s youngest boy. The remaining brothers are desperate to believe their bullying father’s Falstaff-like boasts of driving three assailants off single-handed because, without lies like that, their own pride would crumble too. Mush, the gang’s hanger-on, is tolerated only for the doggerel verses he composes to hymn the brothers’ famous victories: “I knew a great big noble man / His name was Iggy Carney…”

Even in Famine, the magistrate we see discussing proposals with the local relief committee is wary of what happens when words become a substitute for action and myth replaces hard reality. “I did receive that pile of government pamphlets and I have examined them,” he tells his colleagues. “But they are totally inconsequential since we can’t eat them.”

You can’t eat books: that could be Michael’s friend in Conversations talking, and it’s surely no coincidence that Murphy gave that disillusioned poet his own first name. Both Toms are deep in love with language, but painfully aware that the Irish often weave it into a comforting and self-deceptive veil. “You all love speeches,” Tom spits in the first play, and we know he’s chiding himself too. “Rhetoric, crap. Speeches!”

DruidMurphy’s production of these three plays uses the same company of 17 actors throughout. The two names I’d single out from a uniformly strong cast are Garrett Lombard (as Tom/Hugo/Malachy) and Aaron Monaghan (as Liam/Harry/Mickaleen). There’s little for the women to do but suffer in any of the plays, but Eileen Walsh makes the most of both Peggy’s comic turn in Conversations and Betty’s more pivotal role in Whisper. Garry Hynes’ direction throughout is sharp, effective and fast-moving.

Although the plays were written as far apart as 1961 and 1985, with no thought of forming a trilogy, links do appear between them when viewed in a single day. The policeman’s rifle which Malachy O’Leary steals in Famine, for example, is echoed 120 years later by Junior’s plans to “lay our hands on a few guns” in Conversations. When Famine’s Dan O’Dea makes passing mention of a family called Carney, it’s impossible not to imagine them as the ancestors of the Coventry thugs we met in Whisper.

The first two plays are both powerful and funny. Famine occasionally feels more like a playwright laying his research out on the stage rather than a truly involving drama, but it’s undeniably got its heart in the right place. For me, it was most effective when it focussed sharply on a single pair of characters, such as the O’Leary brothers or the two hapless policemen who Malachy O’Leary kills. The police are given only a page of dialogue between them, but in Murphy’s hands even that is enough to make us feel their deaths.

Review by Paul Slade. DruidMurphy has a full schedule for the three plays’ touring schedule in England, America and Ireland here. Follow Slade’s regular London theatre reviews on Twitter @PlanetSlade.