Reviews West End & Central Published 18 September 2014

Ballyturk

National Theatre ⋄ 11th September - 11th October 2014

Bringing down the walls.

William Drew

Enda Walsh’s new play Ballyturk, which comes to the National Theatre after a run at the Black Box Theatre in Galway, is set in “no time, no place”. The play’s name is that of a fictional town, a non- place itself but nevertheless imbued with an Irish identity from the “bally” of its first two syllable with “turk is a playful McGuffin.”  The play’s territory is staked out in the space between the two parts of its name: the identifiable and the imagined.

As Colm Tóibín writes in his essay that appears to be in the production programme alongside some blurry atmospheric photographs of abandoned swings, footballs and bicycles, “plays words for all they are worth”. He leaves the critic with a carcass to pick over and it’s hard to resist the temptation to curse for taking so much and leaving one with so little. This is more applicable to Ballyturk than to any of his previous work. In it, he pushes a form he more or less created until it breaks, he brings the wall crashing down.

To those familiar with Walsh’s work both the texts themselves and the visual and performative styles that have emerged from the ongoing collaborations with Mikel Murfi, Cillian Murphy, both of whom feature here, the opening image will not be unfamiliar. Two men in a confined domestic space, littered with old­fashioned chintz, desperately trying to use language and physicality to depict a place and time that isn’t here or now. One of them in white Y-­fronts. They do this at furious speed and with an energy that makes it clear that this isn’t just playing: this is a matter of life or death. If you’ve never seen this before, it’s an incredible thing to watch. What is happening on stage is physically very demanding, truly athletic and there’s never any attempt to hide the physical demands. The production never makes it look easy. If you’ve seen any of Walsh’s work since The New Electric Ballroom and The Walworth Farce, you might be forgiven, to start with at least, from thinking that you’d seen this before.

The titular town that is being depicted by the two men (possibly brothers) also feels like classic Walshland: a petty, poisonous, deeply conservative small Irish town. The plight of the main character, the outsider mocked by the community for having the nerve to stick out (represented here by a bright yellow jumper he has the gall to wear) who placidly accepts abuse but in the dark recesses of his heart desires bloody revenge on them all, will again spark a glint of recognition in anyone who has seen Misterman, Cillian Murphy’s last appearance at the National, also in a set designed by Jamie Vartan. You might start to ask questions of Walsh. Has he run out of ideas? Is he just rewriting the same play over and over?

There’s something strange about the music though. While some of it appears to be generated in world, from the old record player which queues Murfi and Murphy’s characters as to their manic daily routines, there’s also an oppressive cinematic over­scoring track: something external outside this boarded off room. Initially, this seems a strange decision by Walsh the director, seemingly betraying the claustrophobic rules established by Walsh the writer. It’s only when Murphy shouts out, in a moment of hideous distress, “where’s that music coming from?” that you realise that there is something outside this room, a force bearing down on these two men, undefined, unexplained, terrifying. The cracks start to appear and a third man, the brilliantly cast Stephen Rea, appears to expose the fallacy of all the men have taught themselves to believe and to provide them with a choice that is tragic in the true sense of the word.

Ballyturk merges the tragic with the absurd and in doing so comes closest to Beckett than any of Walsh’s work so far. The world outside stops having a tangible, identifiable quality. We find ourselves adrift. This makes it possibly his most troubling play yet and the hardest to digest. It makes you work and trying to hard to search for meaning or clear metaphor will always frustrate you. If it’s any consolation though, you won’t be working nearly as hard as the actors. Or the words.

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William Drew

William Drew is a writer, narrative designer and dramaturg based in Brighton. He makes work at the intersection between live performance and gaming as Venice as a Dolphin and a Coney Associate. He is Associate Dramaturg of New Perspectives in Nottingham. He spent several years working in the Royal Court Theatre’s International and Literary Departments and has been a script reader for the National Theatre, Hampstead and Traverse Theatres. You can find out more about his work here: http://www.williamdrew.work

Ballyturk Show Info


Produced by Landmark Productions and Galway Arts Festival

Directed by Enda Walsh

Written by Enda Walsh

Cast includes Cillian Murphy, Mikel Murfi, Stephen Rea

Link http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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