Home is where the heart is broken: Murphy's brush with Chekhov
But there is a danger of dramatic sprawl: even with some cuts to the text, this production takes three hours.
The danger is enhanced by the nature of the drama. Murphy’s concern in The House is with what happens to a place that is being torn asunder by mass emigration: it is dominated by the unseen and the unsaid.
We have, therefore, none of the astonishingly articulate verbal arias that illuminate Murphy’s plays. On the contrary, the mastery of the writing is exemplified in Christy’s language of ellipsis, evasion and non sequitur. (When he wants to tell Mrs de Burca that he will give her money so she will not have to sell the house, he says: “And if it’s a question of! D’you know what I mean?”) And just as so much remains unsaid, the one big, awful piece of action in the play is not just unseen but barely spoken of.
With two plays side by side, a verbally evasive central character and a central event that is largely withheld, what can hold The House together over such a long stretch? Murphy seems, Houdini-like, to have deliberately placed himself in a trap from which no ordinary dramatist can escape. And yet there is an overall dynamic at work and a single imagined space where the different elements can meet and cohere: the town itself. The House could just as easily be called The Town, for what holds it together is Murphy’s extraordinary ability to conjure up the physical and social reality of a place we never actually see.
The town is the space where the two plays meet. On the one side, the women of the big house are being drawn ever farther into it: it is where they are to end up. (One by one, each of the sisters enters the male, urban space of the pub.) On the other, the town is also encroaching on the big house itself, first through Christy, then through the gawkers who come to the auction at which it is sold. But, in the tragic irony that hangs over everything, the town is itself imploding through emigration. It is a centre that cannot hold.
Comyn’s production manages to keep this imagined space alive. She has the courage not to try to do this through naturalistic period detail. Niamh Lunny’s evocative costumes are allowed to bear the weight of establishing a sense of the 1950s, but Paul O’Mahony’s set is largely uncluttered and spare. Comyn trusts in the performances to carry with them a vibrant sense of the social world that surrounds both the pub and the house. The performances are up to the job of embodying the rage and confusion of a place that holds out promises of home that it can never fulfil.