The Genius of Enda Walsh
Enda Walsh is one of my favourite playwrights but my reaction to his work has always been one of adoring bafflement, of inexpressible infatuation. Seeing the revival of his 1999 play Misterman at the National Theatre on Monday night reminded me how much I love his writing and provoked me to try to force that feeling into some of coherent analysis.
Photo: Sarah Weal
There are always themes and preoccupations that any writer will come back to time and time again. Some create a very particular atmosphere in their work which instantly makes us recognise the territory as theirs (Martin Crimp, Philip Ridley, EV Crowe). In Walsh’s case, there’s a sense of claustrophobia that every play of his that I know contains and which becomes both the theme and the engine for the narrative. This is as much the case for those set in urban environments (Disco Pigs, The Walworth Farce) as it is with those set in small, rural communities (Misterman, The New Electric Ballroom). You could even say that the claustrophobia is emphasised in the ‘urban’ plays as it tends to be self-imposed: Pig and Runt’s intense relationship (Disco Pigs); the small flat in South London where three Irishmen frenetically recreate the story of their last days in Ireland (The Walworth Farce).
Seeing it now, Misterman seems to be a particularly defining play for Walsh and perhaps this is why he wanted to return to it with a large-scale production of this kind, starring the extraordinary Cillian Murphy who first worked with Walsh on Disco Pigs in 1997. While there’s no doubt that Pig and Runt’s relationship is an unhealthy and unsustainable one and that they are trapped in a pattern (defined largely by a shared language) that can only be broken through with violence of some kind, they are not actually physically restricted. In Misterman, Magill is physically trapped in the playing space we see in front of us. He is compelled to recreate the events that brought him to that point. He performs his story with absolute conviction and single-mindedness. The act of performance feels like a matter of life or death or maybe it is something more than that.
Photo: Catherine Ashmore
It’s significant after all that he plays it all out in front of us. We feel he’s done this before but the question of whether anyone else has been there to witness it until now remains open. Almost everything we are seeing and hearing has been directed, designed and performed by Magill (played by Walsh himself in the original production), except, it would seem, for two elements: the dogs outside and the song that seems to play from the tape recorder which he smashes up at the beginning only to find that it keeps playing. The dogs torment him. They act as harpies but they are also recognisable as the “real-life” dogs of Inishfree, who hate Magill for what he did to one of their kind. If anything belongs to the outside world though, they are it. The song is disembodied, again a kind of torment but an ethereal one, the sound of the other world threatening Magill with never ending torment.
The character is trapped inside their own narrative, condemned to play it out night after night in front of an audience who can temporarily, at least, release them from this purgatory, as we release Prospero from his island at the end of The Tempest.
This has become the structure for almost all Walsh plays subsequently. In Bedbound, father and daughter tell each other the story of how they came to be stuck together in this small bedsit with the father in the state of the title. With both The New Electric Ballroom and The Walworth Farce, family members come together to tell and re-enact the stories of how their lives came to be what they are now. In both these cases though, there’s an attempt to rebel against the tyranny of these repeated narratives. Even when the rebellion is met with violent suppression, those plays contain a sense that there is the possibility of change, the possibility of resisting the forces of inherited narrative.
In Penelope, Walsh’s last play to be seen here, we meet the mythical Penelope’s ill-fated suitors on the eve of Odysseus’s return. Not only do those of us familiar with the myth know that the characters are facing death at the returning hero’s hands, they know it themselves through a prophetic dream. They know they are going to die and they are performing for us and for Penelope in a quest not for self-preservation but for self-justification for how they have lived and who they have become. All they have left is a chance to show what they are taking with them from this life. In Burns’s final speech about love, he accepts death by transcending the self and talking to Penelope about love not as a force by which he can be delivered from death but as a force by which we can all live better and in doing so accept the inevitability of our mortality. The ability to mix profundity and futility is what makes Walsh a unique and important writer because it is genuinely tragic in its gesture. What is more though, in a time and culture saturated by irony, he is unafraid to show us characters on stage speaking with utter and eloquent sincerity. This is truly rare.