Four men drowning by an empty swimming pool

 

Penelope Druid Lane Theatre, Galway

The four characters competing to woo Penelope in Enda Walsh’s new play may put up a fight, but they know their fates are sealed. If the immediate location didn’t spell doom – a drained swimming pool, fringed with junk, grime and, more recently, gore, in Sabine Dargent’s immediately startling set – then a shared dream prophesying the return of Penelope’s vengeful husband Odysseus and their own spectacular demise hastens the desperation.

But Druid’s grimly amusing production of Walsh’s frantic, poetic and surreal comedy makes their true realisation more horrifying and somehow more fatal: they are all condemned to be men.

Director Mikel Murfi presents a range of males, from alpha to zeta, where Karl Shiels’ roughened Quinn, as tanned and lacquered as a life-size Ken doll, mans a barbecue in a pair of red speedos, while Tadhg Murphy’s Burns, an indentured servant, peers at a blood stain that was once his friend.

They are joined by Denis Conway’s Dunne, a bombastic and corpulent ham with an alarming fondness for tiger-print accessories, and Niall Buggy’s older, addled Fitz, nose deep in pharmaceuticals and Homer’s The Odyssey– perhaps reading ahead. Walsh affords these four ages of man a common condition, namely desire, but grants them not so much a plot as a deadline. Moved by the imminence of Odysseus’s return, they pledge to aid each other in the dim chance that if one of them wins Penelope, all will be saved.

What follows is a dialogue of cerebral slapstick and a succession of set pieces in which a statuesque, inscrutable and entirely silent Penelope (Olga Wehrly) watches their overtures via CCTV. Here, love becomes everything from a lothario’s strategy, giving Conway the amusing swagger of a Neil Diamond impersonator, to an antidote for absence, devastatingly expressed by Buggy.

“How dare you bring the world into this!” Dunne barks at Burns as the accord deteriorates, but reality is steadily approaching the legend like a returning warrior. Those inclined to seek Beckettian echoes in Walsh’s work may find parallels in men defined by either the head or the body, or the stage that invokes a reality beyond its borders, but the play’s real concern is more uniquely Walshian.

Quinn’s late bid for Penelope, wickedly well realised by Shiels and Murphy, literally turns love into a charade, but it is Murphy’s Burns who reconciles the play’s theme and its thrust with a more impassioned exhortation of the truth.

The suitors belong to a story that will not end well for them, but Burns knows there is a world beyond lies, fiction, competition and even Homer, one whose stories are shapeless, expanding and full of possibility.

In that belief, love conquers all – even the soon to be conquered.


Runs at the Galway Arts Festival until Sat July 24 and then tours