ONE OF the definite highlights of this year’s Galway Arts Festival sees the welcome reunion of playwright Tom Murphy with Druid Theatre for a new production of his great play The Gigli Concert, directed by Garry Hynes.
It is a reunion that brings back fond memories of Murphy’s spell as writer in association with the company during the 1980s - a partnership that, co-incidentally, began just after The Gigli Concert was premiered at the Abbey. It was a partnership that resulted in exhilarating productions of Murphy’s On The Outside, Conversations On A Homecoming, and Bailegangaire, featuring Siobhan McKenna’s sublime swansong in the unforgettable role of Mommo.
It’s a time Murphy recalls with great pleasure, as he revealed over a Saturday afternoon phone call from his Dublin home.
“It was a great time in my life when Garry asked me to be the writer in association with Druid,” he declares. “My instinct was that they had something going which was not merely hot, it was boiling. Also, at that time I was about 15 years older than anyone else in the company and the experience of working with them rejuvenated me, it’s like I shed those 15 years.
“It was a very exciting and exuberant experience. It was wonderful to step again into that wonderful magical space of Druid theatre on the first day of rehearsals of The Gigli Concert and seeing this wonderful cast start to work on the script. It’s very exciting for me to be returning here.”
The Gigli Concert is widely regarded as one of Murphy’s masterpieces. It deals with seven days in the relationship between dynamatologist JPW King, a quack self-help therapist living in Dublin but born and brought up in England, and the mysterious Irishman, a despairing construction millionaire who asks King to teach him how to sing like the great Italian opera singer Beniamino Gigli.
The play had its origins in Murphy’s own lifelong love of music.
“I had wanted to write something about singing,” he recalls. “I’ve never been envious of any other playwright but I got to the point where I actually couldn’t bear to listen to singers because I so envied the expressive power that music can possess.
“Then I met the actor Colin Blakely who was taking singing lessons at the time. We’d sit around in the evening having a few drinks and he would be playing the records of all the great tenors, and he got me back into listening to them, and revived my enthusiasm for the beauty of singing.”
Having rediscovered his love of music, the ideas for The Gigli Concert began to take shape.
“I thought of this character who has this impossible, crazy, ambition to sing like Gigli,” he says. “I chose Gigli because he had a very pure voice, even in his late sixties he could produce this incredibly pure sound. I thought it was a sound that could be both haunting and crucifying to someone like the Irishman who has sold out so we get this picture of the human spirit in both joy and pain.
“I’ve been told my characters tend to be harsh but if that’s so, the harshness is only there because they feel they have been betrayed somehow or that they have betrayed something in themselves. The music is like a cry or an echo of that.
“When I write I don’t sit down and start philosophising. I discover the play as I go along and it’s a slow process. I think in The Gigli Concert, the Irish man is too rooted, whereas JPW is like a balloon. The Irish man has rooted himself too much in materialism and has now suffered some sort of breakdown because of that.”
While JPW and the Irish man are the play’s dominant figures, Murphy asserts that the third character, JPW’s occasional lover Mona, is also a key presence.
“The play presents three individual obsessions,” says Murphy. “The Irish man is fixated on Gigli, he has read his memoir and he presents details from that as though it were his life, he is trying to live out that obsession. JPW meanwhile fantasises about the absent woman Helen. Mona meanwhile has invented a godchild that she pretends to have taken to different places.
“All the while the men cry and shout and argue but I think Mona is the heroic one in the play. She has a wonderfully contained quality, a grace under pressure - she is literally on the doorstep of death [it is revealed in the play that she is suffering from cancer]. In writing her though I wasn’t trying to idealise her as a woman and saying she was automatically better than the men, that’s just how she emerged.”
Finally, I suggest to Murphy that the Irish economy’s recent nosedives gives this production a certain piquant topicality as there are probably quite a few despairing construction tycoons currently running around the place. Murphy laughs heartily at the idea. “I hope there are!” he declares. “Well, the corrupt ones anyway.”
The Gigli Concert, directed by Garry Hynes and featuring Denis Conway as the Irish man, Peter Sullivan as JPW King, and Eileen Walsh as Mona runs at Druid Lane theatre from July 14 to August 1. While tickets for that run have already sold out, the play transfers to the Town Hall from August 4 to 8 and tickets are still available for those dates from 091 - 569777.