Enda Walsh’s plays are full of acts of retelling and returning. Characters relive the same moments over and over again, they get tangled in their own stories.
Thomas Magill, the protagonist of Misterman, has populated his world with voices, both from on high and from within. (The play is itself an act of revisiting, a revised version of a piece first performed in 1999). Through a series of tape recordings Thomas has recreated the village of Innisfree where he lives a life of quiet routine with his mother, a life of tea, biscuits, three-bar gas fires and Vicks VapoRub, and is an object of considerable local derision. Sometimes he interacts with these recorded voices, sometimes he acts out a dialogue with himself.
On the day of the Innisfree Community Dance, Thomas sets out from his mammy’s house to restock her stash of Jammie Dodgers and meets a series of neighbours along the way. Each encounter emphasises his isolation. Thomas has a very narrow view of human morality; he believes that people have strayed far from the path (“greed is our communion, sin our religion”) but they are not incapable of being saved – and that he has it in him to save them. Yet his neighbours at best fail to share his zeal, at worst they abuse and taunt him. He jots down their transgressions in a little notebook he carries for the purpose. Things finally change for Thomas when he gains a companion in his mission, an angelic figure called Edel.
There’s a degree of ambiguity to how much of Thomas’ persecution is real, how much of it delusion. The tapes seem to taunt him, playing on even when stamped on and smashed to pieces. And in Cillian Murphy’s astonishingly chameleonic performance it’s sometimes hard to spot the line between the interior and exterior voices. He really is quite something to behold, inhabiting character after character in a process of mass possession. His timing is extraordinary as he zips across the stage, keeping pace with the various recordings and shifting between moments of comedy and unnerving volatility.
The play has a purgatorial quality; there’s a sense both that Thomas has only recently fled to this desolate space following the awful events of the day just gone, and that he’s been here forever, locked in an endless loop, repeating and repeating the moments leading up to the inevitable tragedy. The use of tape recordings, with their little clicks and whines, only adds to the sense of Beckettian ritual.
Jamie Vartan’s brutal ruin of a set, a vast wasteland – as deep as it is wide – of steel shutters, skewed fluorescent strip-lights and raw concrete, does double duty as deserted warehouse and psychological terrain: an unseen hound snarls and howls outside; a crop of neon crosses glows in the murk. (Perhaps because of the Murphy connection, there are times when Christopher Nolan’s Inception comes to mind, especially when props start appearing from nowhere: Jammie Dodgers plummet from above, balloons drift and trip across the stage). This is Thomas’s dream chamber and it’s a dark, dark place.
The production is a technically intricate one but it wears it lightly. Walsh’s writing has moments of lyricism and moments of comedy, but there’s a sense of old ground being covered; the tragic event to which the play builds up is predictable and the idea of the loner made lonelier by an uncaring town, pushed to the edge by unthinking acts of cruelty, is not unfamiliar – the disco finish, with its glitter-ball shimmer and sense of foreboding, is reminiscent of Carrie in more ways than one. But this matters little when pitched against Murphy’s performance. He’s electric, kinetic, dazzling in his physicality; never still, he fills the huge space with ease.