London-based Irishman Enda Walsh has outdone himself with a new play more complex, dark and emotionally rich than any of his previous efforts (including “Disco Pigs” and “Bedbound”). The central conceit, that this is a farce within a tragedy, is a master stroke of meta-theatricality. But it also creates a very complicated evening’s viewing that sometimes frustrates the audience’s attempts to grasp what is going on; there are points where Mikel Murfi’s production could have done more to clarify the narrative. It is nonetheless exciting to see a production that so demands intelligence and attention from its viewers and rewards them with a theatrical experience that claws at the imagination for days afterwards.
The play is set in a squalid apartment in a South London housing project, where 50ish Irishman Dinny lives with his young adult sons Blake and Sean. As the action begins, the three men are silently preparing to undertake an activity that, we slowly realize, they have been compulsively repeating for nearly two decades: acting out a play, written, directed by and starring Dinny, in which he rationalizes and glorifies the violent circumstances that drove him from Cork to the British capital.
Our first clue that the story he has constructed might not represent the truth is his chosen theatrical form: old-fashioned high farce, complete with rapid costume changes, cross-dressing, mistaken identity and convoluted, overlapping plot lines.
In his imagined story, Dinny is a rich Cork brain surgeon who ends up in a mortal conflict with his older brother about their mother’s will. Though we never quite get to the bottom of what really happened, we gradually discover he was a laborer who turned violent on his family members and fled the country in fear of his life.
In theory, what happens in the internal farce plot is less important than the twisted but gripping story being played out in the production’s “real time” — that is, Blake and Sean’s unwilling conscription in Dinny’s insane theatrics, and the opportunity for escape that presents itself in the form of Hayley, a checkout girl from the local supermarket who has taken a shine to Sean and turns up unexpectedly at the apartment. Her presence short-circuits the terrible routine of the men’s playacting, eventually causing the system to break down.
All the actors play this external plot with brilliant conviction, and it’s amazing to watch the level of complicated detail as Aaron Monaghan and Garrett Lombard, playing the sons, leap around the stage keeping the farce going while communicating a totally different set of information to themselves and Hayley. Denis Conway is terrifyingly convincing as the megalomaniacal and tragically self-deluding Dinny.
It is hard not to feel, though, that the farce is so ornately constructed as to short-circuit the overall play’s effectiveness: two dead bodies, two sets of marital infidelities, a flying dead horse, a poisoned chicken…. It’s good farce and it’s potentially hilarious, but it’s also not easy enough for the audience to follow the action.
Murfi has Monaghan and Lombard foreground their lack of investment in the farce by playing everything in it with a slight automaton quality, but it might have been more effective to punch up the exaggerated comedy in order to differentiate between the two dramatic worlds. There is also some fussy business about Dinny controlling the apartment lighting as part of his orchestration of the farce, which becomes an additional distraction.
These confusions aside, many elements of the production represent exciting advances in Walsh’s craft. While his stories in the past have been resolutely insular, he here makes forays into social comment via themes of emigration, British-Irish relations and racism.
Walsh moves his emphasis from linguistic complexity to intertextuality: The play is both an internal comment on theater as a warped mirror of its characters’ internal lives, while drawing on and adding to a long tradition of Irish playwriting, up to and including Martin McDonagh.
The play’s final minutes are a triumph of suspense and of staging, enacted unforgettably by Monaghan. Playwright and creative team come together to deliver a tragic ending that feels heartbreakingly, terribly inevitable, even as we wish it could be otherwise.