Murfi and Murphy, the Eric and Ernie of ‘Ballyturk’
The relationship between words and movement in Enda Walsh’s new play, in which two weirdly innocent men are trapped in an endless knockabout farce, is more seamless than in any Irish dramatist since Beckett
Strange bedfellows: Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi
So Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien are jointly commissioned to write a sketch for The Morecambe & Wise Show. Over a bottle of absinthe they concoct something like Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk. It has elements of Sartre’s No Exit, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. But it’s also pure Eric and Ernie: two weirdly innocent men who share a bed but are not lovers, trapped in an endless knockabout farce, putting on “a play what I wrote”.
The result is strange and funny and manic and very, very dark. It is tempting to say that there is nothing quite like it – except, of course, that most of Walsh’s work is quite like it. Which makes Ballyturk a somewhat disconcerting experience: thrilling in its vivid immediacy but just a little dispiriting in its crushing pessimism.
Writers tend to be divisible into explorers who range restlessly and excavators who sift endlessly through the same patch of soil. Walsh is the most extreme excavator in the Irish theatre. It is not just that his plays tend to repeat the same patterns. It is that the patterns they repeat are themselves endless repetitions. He gives us people who are locked into stories they can neither escape nor end.
It is not accidental that Walsh wrote a brilliant play about the myth of Penelope, who weaves a shroud by day and unravels it by night. That’s pretty much what Walsh himself does, weaving and unweaving the same metal cloth.
Thus Ballyturk revisits Walsh’s last collaboration with Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi, Misterman, produced at Galway Arts Festival in 2011, which itself revisited the original 1999 version of the same play. There, Murphy’s isolated character lived in a world of voices that he shaped into the town of Inishfree. Here, Murphy is joined by Murfi onstage and, in contrast to his roaming Misterman persona, closed into a room. But, again, the primary action is the evocation through voices of a fictional town, Ballyturk. The population is similar enough: the shopkeeper, the gossip, the furtive lovers, the ne’er-do-well. This playing out of a repeated scenario, meanwhile, is itself essentially a repeat of another remarkable Walsh play, The Walworth Farce.
These repetitions are not dull; they’re just the way Walsh’s imagination operates. If he were a composer he’d be a minimalist. If he were a poet he would write in deliberately restrictive forms such as the sonnet. He seems to need the rigidity of a confined space and a fixed set of repeating patterns: even in film, it does not seem accidental that the H-blocks of the repeated hunger strikes (Hunger) or the intensely internal world of online relationships (Chatroom) suit his aesthetic.