Home is where the heart is broken: Murphy's brush with Chekhov


CULTURE SHOCK:SOME PLAYS ARE long because they have to be and some are long because the dramatist didn’t work hard enough to write a short one. Tom Murphy’s The House, now revived in Annabelle Comyn’s fine production at the Abbey, is long because it is, in effect, two plays. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that one of them is by Murphy and the other by Anton Chekhov.

Comyn’s slow, stately production justifies its length because it meets the difficult challenge of making these two plays into a coherent whole.

It is a commonplace, even a cliche, to note that one of Ireland’s two senior living playwrights, Brian Friel, is Chekhovian. But that adjective is never applied to the other one. Murphy’s particular mix of dirty realism and operatic mythology seems to owe very little to the great Russian master. But perhaps it is also true that no major contemporary dramatist can get through a career without communing at some stage with Chekhov’s ghost.

Murphy’s next project after The House, which premiered at the Abbey in 2000, was a version of The Cherry Orchard. Both it and Three Sisters have a large bearing on his own play. The dying Mrs de Burca in The House, touchingly played by Eleanor Methven, is a kindlier, more down-to-earth version of The Cherry Orchard’s Ranevskaya, and the central character, Christy – a ruggedly enigmatic Declan Conlon – is a close relative of Lopakhin, the upstart from the town with his eye on the big house, albeit with more complex motives. Equally, the three sisters who live in that house, each in turn burned by Christy’s dark energy, have obvious Chekhovian antecedents.

If this dialogue with two Chekhov plays were all that were going on in The House, it would be interesting but little else. But it’s much bolder than that. For, as well as being in dialogue with Chekhov, Murphy is in discussion with another playwright: himself. The House is, in part, a reoccupation of the territory of Murphy’s own Conversations on a Homecoming, to the extent that that title could have served just as well for this more expansive drama. There is the same rage of the returned exile, the same desperate nostalgia for a building that has been wrapped in all the dreams of home, the same use of the pub, the male drinking group, the truths that float to shore on a tide of alcohol.

WHAT YOU HAVEto imagine, then, is a Chekhov play, but one in which the servants, the Yashas and Dunyashas of The Cherry Orchard, also get to hold the stage. Side by side, Murphy places The Cherry Orchard and Conversations on a Homecoming, the crumbling big-house family and the restive proles, the female world of the drawing room and the male universe of the pub.

The big question is whether the Chekhov play and the Murphy play can be fused into a single dramatic entity. Each is convincingly animated in itself, though the lower-class world of the emigrants home from the building sites for two weeks of drink and disorderliness is inevitably more vivid. There is an especially brilliant portrait of Peter, who pines for home when in Birmingham and for his life as a navvy when at home, making for a wonderfully moving performance by Frank Laverty.

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.

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