Features Published 7 April 2016

Mikel Murfi: “You’re entitled to go to the theatre and see something which is utterly uplifting and joyful.”

As The Man in the Woman's Shoes plays at Tricycle Theatre, Tim Bano talks to Mikel Murfi about unabashed sentimentality, Ballyturk, and why Irish people are really good storytellers.
Tim Bano
Mike Murfi performing The Man In The Woman's Shoes at The Tricycle Theatre.

Mikel Murfi performing The Man In The Woman’s Shoes at The Tricycle Theatre.

One of the most frustrating things about theatre is the way productions – great productions – can burn permanent images into the memory and the mind’s eye, but the reality can never be revisited. And sometimes the half-formed images aren’t enough. Sometimes they’re accompanied by a strong desire to see a play again with that sense of entitlement and instantaneity that’s come with on-demand viewing. I can count on two hands the number of productions that have seared these fierce images into my head in the last couple of years. Mikel Murfi was in two of them.

There was Ballyturk by Enda Walsh, an unfathomable pas de deux between nameless men which played at the National in 2014, and The Last Hotel, an opera also by Enda Walsh whose libretto ranges from a perverse mundanity, unexpectedly banal lines like ‘coupons can be purchased at the reception desk to gain access to the internet’ to the soaring beauty of ‘This renewing, this belonging, this beginning, will it give you rest?’ Murfi’s performances in both of these productions conjured indelible images as he danced his way through Walsh’s intense and insular worlds.

But alongside his collaborations with Enda Walsh, for the last few years Murfi has been performing a one man show called The Man With The Woman’s Shoes which comes to London’s Tricycle Theatre this month.

In 2012, while working as movement director on Mister Man with Walsh and Cillian Murphy, Murfi was commissioned by a local theatre in Sligo to write a play. It was to be part of the Bealtaine Festival (‘Bealtaine’ means ‘May’ in Gaelic), a festival which for the last 20 years has been celebrating creativity in older people, encouraging society’s elders to go to plays, exhibitions and get involved with workshops.

Murfi interviewed people from old age groups and retirement homes, collecting their stories – “Irish people are really good storytellers” – and reflecting their lives back to them. The result was The Man In The Woman’s Shoes. “I made something incredibly simple. The people in day care centres weren’t going to be ready for the level of intensity of something like Ballyturk, and that’s not who they were. I did a show about who they were.”

Unlike Ballyturk, too, which was built from the ground up through a collaborative process between Enda Walsh, Cillian Murphy and Mikel, this show is the product of one man. Murfi wrote it, directed himself standing in the barn at the back of his house, and learned his lines by reciting them to his wife. The result is “just me and a bag,” as Murfi puts it.

Mike Murfi performing The Man In The Woman's Shoes at The Tricycle Theatre.

Mike Murfi performing The Man In The Woman’s Shoes at The Tricycle Theatre.

“The world premiere of it was in an old folks’ home, me with my back to the toilet and a semicircle of clients in front of me, the reception area beyond that, and beyond that the hospital cafe. In broad daylight. You stand there, you talk to yourself. But it was fun. My god it was fun.”

Murfi’s work doesn’t, perhaps, fit into the contemporary Irish idiom in that it is free of conflict, free of violence, free of trauma.It’s unashamedly sentimental, and for the great theatre critics – the ones who think they’re the great theatre thinkers – there’s no place for sentimentality. It has to be full of conflict, full of drama, you have to be at the coalface of something visceral. And I go ‘no, other people go to the theatre too’. You’re entitled to go to the theatre and see something which is utterly uplifting and joyful.”

What was meant to be four performances in an old people’s home in Sligo has grown and grown. During its run at the Tricycle in April and May, The Man In The Woman’s Shoes will have its 150th performance. On top of that, the show has a had a slew of effusive reviews – including a gushing notice in the New York Times.

“It’s weird. It’s like they’ve suddenly realised they’re faced with a central character who is really ordinary. Nothing dramatic happens in the play, he walks to the town to deliver a pair of shoes. I think people are touched by the fact that he is so ordinary. Mikel and Tim wake up at the beginning of the day and all the things we do are pretty ordinary things. We forget sometimes that that’s who we are.”

Murfi thinks that the simplicity and honesty of the idea is at the heart of its success. “When I was with those groups of old folk I wanted to document them, I wanted to honour them, I wanted to reflect back to them that they’re really good people. The human being doesn’t give itself enough credit for what it’s doing when it just gets up and gets through the day. My brother in law has two kids and says ‘oh my god, just get me to teatime’.”

Even though the play is set in Sligo, based on interviews with people from Sligo, written for a local theatre in Sligo, by a man from Sligo, it has tapped into something much more universal, too – “like watching a really gorgeous, slow-paced art house movie where nothing really happens but it’s set in the country.” The phraseology and the patterns of speech of Murfi’s interviewees is woven into his text like a patchwork quilt. His job as a performer, he says, is not to act but to “facilitate a play passing through me.”

“Otherwise what you have is actors acting acting. You have a guy who is showing you his King Lear, but I can’t see past you showing me your King Lear and see the play. I want to see the play.

As a director I’m always saying to actors ‘get out of the way’. An actor has much greater chance of transcending something, of moving it into some sort of territory where the piece is almost out of your control. And that’s a really joyful, exciting experience for an actor. Trust the play, trust the characters. The audience will sniff it out, they’ll know that you are in the way, that the actor is working the room. And they won’t appreciate it.”

This sense of a text having character, just as much as it may contain characters, is especially true of Enda Walsh’s work. Walsh and Murfi met in Dublin, encountering each other when Walsh made Disco Pigs with Cillian Murphy. “We’ve always sort of hung out, we were all the same age and making theatre at the same time. And about 12 years ago out of the blue he sent me The Walworth Farce. I totally fell in love with it, and that’s where it started, a really intense collaboration.” In fact, almost everything Walsh has made in the last decade or more has probably included Murfi: The Walworth Farce, The New Electric Ballroom, Penelope, Lyndie’s Got A Gun, Mister Man, Ballyturk, The Last Hotel.

The two of them make a natural pair: both have the ability to tap into subtext and atmosphere. “We both really understand how a physical energy in a theatre space is a big, big requirement. Enda is more concerned about atmosphere, about creating dialogues that will allow an atmosphere to exist. When we made Ballyturk myself and Cillian spent a week in London running around the rehearsal room. After a week of showing him the quality of the energy in the room, he knows he can go away and write that. He knows the bodies he’s writing for.”

In fact, most of our conversation consists of praising and analysing Walsh’s writing. “He’s easily the fastest writer I know to write himself into your subconscious. Within two minutes he’s in there, you don’t really know it, and he starts digging. And he doesn’t stop digging. He’s like a terrier in there. Your subconscious is saying ‘I’ll deal with this later, I’ll deal with this later.’ You can’t see where he’s going.”

Just as Walsh can dig into the subconscious with his writing, Murfi can with his physicality. For him, physicality is just as important an aspect of theatre as text – an inheritance, perhaps, from Murfi’s training under Jacques Lecoq in Paris. This physicality was evident in his performance as the porter in Walsh and Donnacha Dennehy’s opera The Last Hotel, which premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival last year. During one scene, Murfi takes to the stage for a wild, ecstatic dance. He drew pictures for Walsh with images of what the dance might look like, but they agreed not to fix the choreography. “We thought that live energy would be useful.” It’s a bizarre moment in a production full of bizarre moments.

“I have four things I’m responsible for: I have text, the subtext of that text, I have the primary physical language, and the subtext of my physical language. Actors are talking physically, and if the actor is good enough the actor can put forward a physical composite of a character. It’s a responsibility to keep three or four different languages in your mind at the same time.”

“Lecoq would say to you as you left his school ‘you’ve got to reclaim the theatricality of theatre’, because people are making TV and films in theatre now and things that are not inherently theatrical.” It’s a lesson that Murfi has taken to heart, a lesson that is in evidence in his every performance.

The Man in the Woman’s Shoes is on at the Tricycle Theatre until 23rd April 2015. Click here for tickets.


Tim Bano

Tim is a freelance arts writer and theatre critic. He writes regularly for Time Out, The Stage and other publications. He is co-creator of Pursued By A Bear, Exeunt Magazine's theatre podcast.



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