THE WRITER and performer Mikel Murfi makes a welcome return visit to Galway with his latest play, The Man In The Woman’s Shoes.
Written and performed by Murfi, this warm, funny, and tender play has been nominated for Best New Play in The Irish Times Theatre Awards and been greeted with glowing reviews (“One of the most delightful shows I’ve come across in years” - Mail on Sunday).
The action unfolds one day in October, 1978. Pope John Paul I is not long dead, Autumn is closing in and farmer-cum-cobbler Pat Farnon has ‘some business’ to do in town. The Man In The Woman’s Shoes follows Pat as he walks the five miles from his small white cottage to town and back and introduces the various colourful folk he meets along the way. While Pat may be an ageing man he still has a boundless enthusiasm for life and the play’s humour and charm imparts a real sense of uplift and affirmation.
“The play started out as a commission from the Sligo Arts Office,” Murfi tells me ahead of his play’s production in the Town Hall Theatre. “They were looking for an artist to engage with a number of groups of older people they were working with, retirement groups, and so on.
“The show was written for the Bealtaine Festival which celebrates arts and age. I went out and met five or six of these groups and the idea was that I would write a play that I could then bring back and present in the places where I had researched the show.
“I had a number of characters from Sligo town I remembered from when I was a kid, that I wanted to honour in some way, and they formed the basis of the work. The central character, Pat Farnon, pulls all those stories together.
“What I was doing in the research was using the memories from people in the age groups of how people were and how they behaved and situations they got into, to fill out the landscape of the town and the county in the play. It’s a very simple story really, it’s about Pat walking to town and the things that happen to him as he walks into town and then back home again that evening.”
I ask Mikel to expand on the character of Pat Farnon, the play’s main protagonist.
“He is an incredibly gentle character,” he replies. “I love people from that age group, they are my mum and dad’s age or older, and I wanted to make something gentle and honourable about those people.
“The delight for me in rehearsing the show was meeting the old people and having conversations and cups of tea in halls around Sligo county. I wanted to generate a character who was very simple and ordinary, there are lots of lives lived around us that are very straightforward, simple lives that might not have a lot of drama. Pat’s a man who just mends shoes and sometimes makes shoes, I didn’t want him to be flash in any way.”
Pat is based on the grand-uncle of Murfi’s wife Eithne.
“When we moved to Sligo about six or seven years ago we bought a house in Ballinafad and her people are from just across the border there in County Roscommon,” says Murfi. “Her grand-uncle, Pat, was a cobbler in the locality and was quite a character by all accounts. He was often seen around the locale in women’s shoes, now whether or not he was wearing them because he liked it or because he was ‘stretching’ them I don’t know, but everyone we talked to insisted it was his way of stretching the shoes.
“There were so many eccentric characters around then, there was a guy I remember who used to work for Sligo County Council and you’d often see him digging the roads and whatnot and he’d be wearing a nurse’s uniform the whole time and no-one batted an eyelid. There seemed to be an acceptance, those eccentrics had their place. So the show is partly about honouring the eclectic nature of that society and those people.”
I ask why he chose to set the play around the time of John Paul I’s demise.
“When John Paul I died there was a fella in my secondary school who came out with the words ‘That Pope didn’t last long, didn’t he not Miss?’ and I loved the rhythm of the line,” Murfi reveals. “It is not hugely significant to the play except that it brings us back into a different period.
“One of Pat’s good friends is Hubie Patterson who minds Pat and helps him, and Hubie is obsessive about the Pope and talks about this furore on the radio because someone phoned up and asked seeing as the Pope died was he an organ donor and the Papal Nuncio rings in to say ‘That can’t happen because if the papal organs were donated they would become relics in other people’s bodies.’ My research was really about bringing authenticity to turns of phrase and the way people talked.”
The Man in the Woman’s Shoes is at the Town Hall Theatre on Friday February 14 and Saturday 15 at 8pm. Tickets are €15/12 and available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie