THE REALISATION that one day we die, and that this existence is over, never to be re-experienced, hits two men one night as they sit at home, sending them on a journey, not into misery, but outrageousness and laughter, and a route whose end, ironically, they cannot even begin to guess.
This is Ballyturk, the new play by the acclaimed Irish playwright Enda Walsh, which will have its world premiere at this year’s Galway Arts Festival, when it runs at the Black Box Theatre from July 10 to 27.
The play, a Galway Arts Festival and Landmark Productions co-production, features an outstanding cast in the great Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Breakfast On Pluto); Stephen Rea (Angel, The Crying Game, V For Vendetta, Interview With The Vampire); and Mikel Murfi, one of Ireland’s leading theatre practitioners.
Death and mystery
The inspiration for Ballyturk came from a conversation Enda had with his daughter when trying to explain to her the difficult subject of death.
“She was shocked. She thought it was a joke,” Enda tells me, over the phone from London, where he is now based. “‘Seriously?’ she said. ‘Yeah, We do. We all die.’ ‘And we live with that knowledge, every day?’ I tried to explain that we don’t think of it all the time, and that we get by through falling in love, having a job, getting an education, but that one day it will come.
“I was seeing her face going ‘Oh God! This is something real’ and from that I had this notion of, what if we had this hothouse idea over an hour and a half, and place that in the minds of two adults, and see how it plays out, and how they choose to live? It’s a meditation on death and ‘it will end’, but it’s also about love and it’s wildly comic and fast, and ludicrous.”
Throughout the interview Enda refers again and again to ‘keeping the audience and the characters guessing’ as to where they are, leading both actors and spectators along several paths, to the point where, just as they think they have figured it out, everything changes. Playing a major role in that ‘guessing game’ is the set design.
“I have just been looking at a model of the set. It’s extraordinary,” says Enda. “It looks like a big room, a big, rural Irish dwelling. It will be a thing people will walk away from the show going ‘Oh my God!’ One of the things the play is about and asks, is ‘Where are we?’
“It’s an exciting place to be, because when you see the set you will think you know what it is. Then, as the play goes on you will say, ‘I don’t know what it is’, and then in the last five minutes, you realise where exactly the characters are, and everything gets turned on its head.”
The three amigos
Ballyturk again finds Enda reunited with his friend Cillian Murphy. The last time Galway witnessed this partnership in action was in 2011, during the arts festival run of Walsh’s Misterman, featuring a jaw dropping solo performance from Murphy. His namesake, Mikel, albeit with the unusual spelling, is another longtime collaborator of the playwright.
“Mikel is a great presence to have in the room,” says Enda. “He and Cillian together are very funny, cracking terrible jokes. I wanted to write something for them, and that would also allow me to have time with them.”
Any concerns that Ballyturk might be a self-indulgent ‘buddy-buddy’ fest and excuse for three mates to hang out, is alleviated by the fact Enda wanted to work with the two men as they force him to challenge himself as a writer.
“Working with Cillian and Mikel gives me freedom,” Enda declares. “When I’m writing, and know I’ll be working with Cillian and Mikel, I feel very confident - not arrogant, but more ‘Let’s do this. Let’s be brave. Let’s disappear into this world we can make. Let’s take risks. Let’s not be precious.’
“I know both of them really well. They are two of my closest friends and part of that relationship was formed through working together. We challenge each other. We want to move people and excite them and have them see us taking a risk with this work.”
While working on the play, Enda also began to feel that Stephen Rea would be ideal for the third character.
“When I was writing it I could hear Stephen’s voice in my head,” he says. “He’s a wonderful Beckett and Pinter actor and I’m dying to see the audience reaction to his part. We all probably have and use humour and we all like to put humour into our work, and, like all good Irish theatre we love to slam humour up against tragedy. The prospect for me is exciting. It’s a privilege to be in the same room as them. I know they will give excellent performances.”
Another key factor in the Ballyturk experience will be the music composed for the play by Italy’s Teho Teardo, whose admirers include no less a composer than Ennio Morricone.
“I was listening to his music on Spotify while I was writing the play,” says Enda. “I wanted music in the play and felt it needed to be a string quartet and electronica. Teho worked with The Balanescu Quartet, who did a string quartet version of Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobhan’.
“I basically sent him the play and said ‘I’m an Irish writer and a big fan’ and he wrote back saying ‘I’m a fan of your work too’ and that he’s seen Italian stagings of my plays. We met and went over the work, and the music came through this week. It rips open the soul of the play and it brings the whole production to a fuller, deeper, experience for the audience. There is a lot of hard, deep, cello, and this guitar/electronic sort of thing. Listen to his ‘Wilder Mann’ and it will give you a good idea. I’d love him to play in Galway.”
From his emergence in the late 1990s with Disco Pigs, and on to such major works like The New Electric Ballroom, The Walworth Farce, and Misterman, Enda has become one of Ireland’s most daring and imaginative playwrights - but he is convinced Ballyturk marks a turning point for him as a writer.
“My instinct, when I finished it, was that I have entered a new stage of work,” he says. “I don’t know what it was, I just feel it is. People who’ve seen my plays will recognise the style, but will also see it shifting into a more unsettling, romantic, rich world than I have ever produced. For me, it’s a massive, massive play.
“When I finished The Walworth Farce, I thought ‘I’ll probably be writing plays influenced by this for the next five years.’ Ballyturk is like that now and I think I’ll be in this zone for a while.”