Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk: dabbling with mortality in our own private universes

The playwright has created another peculiar world with its own logic in his new piece, in which two friends, played by Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi, are abruptly confronted with the concept of death

Enda Walsh’s intense new play brings together an all-star cast of Cillian Murphy, Stephen Rea and Mikel Murfi. Are they looking forward to being put under ‘tremendous strain’ by Walsh? Video: Landmark Productions

Sat, Jun 21, 2014, 01:00

Enda Walsh didn’t break it to his daughter gently. “I can still remember her little face and that incredulous look on it,” says the playwright, in a tone somewhere between empathy and amusement. The six-year-old had just asked her father about death, and Walsh, the maverick dramatist, decided to level with her. “Yeah, yeah, yeah – we do, we die. Seriously. We die.”

His voice takes on the calm persuasiveness of the customer-service line when there’s nothing more they can do for you. “But,” he added, “we don’t think about that every day. We fall in love and we plan out things and we go to work and we go on holiday and we live a life.” But you carry the certainty of death around with you, she persisted. “Yeah, we do,” he said, “and as we get older, maybe that thought gets bigger, but you can’t think about it all the time.”

Listening to Walsh’s story, told with his customary spry intensity, it isn’t clear exactly whom he was trying to persuade. For the playwright, the realisation of mortality set something in motion, and it chimed with another memory: when he watched the actor Cillian Murphy rehearsing for Landmark’s recent production of Walsh’s Misterman in New York, at the full tilt of his magnetic performance, while their production manager, standing less than a metre away, worked on, quietly indifferent.

“Of course. That’s what we are as people,” thought Walsh. “We just sort of exist, very simply, in our own little universes.” Slowly, an idea for a play began to take form. How can people live a regular life if they know they are just a heartbeat away from oblivion? And what would happen if two adult friends, played by Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi, experienced his daughter’s dramatic realisation? How would they go on?

There has always been something boyish about Walsh, still slender-framed, uninhibited and given to such runaway enthusiasm that his words sometimes barely keep pace with his thoughts. That spirit has helped to define his theatre: ferociously comic, madly affecting, where characters tend to seal themselves within claustrophobic spaces – pigpens, beds, disintegrating flats – or behind thickets of playful, distorted language. You might look for Walsh’s signature in his syntax alone, where words multiply, tumble and shatter, but he is more focused on a bracing approach to form.

“I want to hold people,” he tells me. “I don’t want to bamboozle them. I want to kinetically move them. After years of making work, the ambition is still to keep theatre alive, dangerous, unknowable and dreadfully f**king exciting for an audience.”

Walsh gives little away about Ballyturk, his first original play in four years, which he is also directing for Landmark and Galway Arts Festival. “I’m still looking at it and going, ‘Yes, but what does it mean, and where is it?’ ” he says. “But I know that it’s probably a play about friendship. It’s about putting a real, loving, deeply caring friendship under extreme pressure and seeing what’s going to happen to it.”

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