There were disturbing echoes of the Imelda Riney murders in a wood near Whitegate, Co Clare, in April 17 years ago, in Enda Walsh’s new play Misterman, which opened this years Arts Festival on Monday. Imelda and her young four-years -old son and a priest were shot by Brendan O’Donnell, who later killed himself in prison. Woods are beautiful in springtime, but since our childhood fairy tales have told us that woods can be sinister places. In a superb piece of stage business Thomas Magill leads his angelic Edel into the woods along a green carpet which rolls out ahead of them, leading to the river where they sit. We don’t hear of Edel’s fate till the last moments of the play, but we have our suspicions.
Magill, played with extraordinary energy and sensitivity by Cillian Murphy, is the village half-wit, obsessed with God and having pure thoughts. On the surface he looks and sounds harmless enough, and innocent abroad. But he has volcanic bouts of rages. He lives in squalor with, we initially think, his mother, for whom he buys Jammy Dodgers in the local shop winning praise for being such a kind and loving son. We see his other side, however. His mother complains of the cold in the house. Barely controlling his fury, he repeatedly and cynically demands that she wears a pullover. Barking dogs drive him mad. He locks up his own dog behind noisy sheets of galvanised iron, and in one terrible moment savagely beats to death Mrs O’Donnell’s dog, which attacks his ankles on the street.
His mother in fact does not exist. Magill is a genius with a tape recorder. His untidy home has several tape recorders which click on at various times with voices, and Doris Day songs. He carries a portable tape recorder with him, and takes notes on how to improve the conversations. But sometimes there are nightmare moments when the tape recorders take on an energy of their own, and spew out words and sounds automatically. But when Magill gets them under control, they guide him through the day.
His mother’s voice is cajoling and loving as Magill prepares breakfast, and tells her what he plans to do that morning. His mother reminds him that it was a pity when he was drowning the kittens that he didn’t keep one for the home. Magill replies that it is bad enough being an only child in a family; imagine what it would be like to be an only kitten in a town full of dogs?
As he moves around through the debris of empty Fanta cans, old tyres, broken chairs and stuff, clearly the family had seen better days. Magill’s father, who is deceased, had a shop, which was prosperous. Those days are obviously long gone. On this particular day, Magill tells his mother he will visit his father’s grave, and he prepares to set out. It appears to be all very normal and at the start the audience is captivated by Magill perfectly timing his moves to the voice from the machine. Gradually, however, we see the danger in Magill’s violent explosions, his weird, religious, outpourings, and we wonder what has happened to his mother. It is an Alfred Hitchcock moment.
Cillian Murphy and Enda Walsh have been friends for 15 years, and both are at the top of their game. This success came despite the dreadful names of the bands in which they both played before their careers took off. Enda, when he was working with a Cork theatrical group, Corcadorca, played in a band called Readily Salted Ceilli. Both were doing dire box office. But just as Corcadorca was about to sink without trace, Enda approached its director Pat Kiernan, and urged him to read his play Disco Pigs. Kiernan loved it, and set about looking for two actors. Elaine Cassidy was to play the lead female, but no one was sure of this young law student at NUIC who played in a band called The Sons of Mr Green Jeans, and was pestering them for the part. Somehow Cillian persuaded them to forget his band, and to give his acting hopes a chance.
The combination of the actors and the play proved to be an inspired choice. It was originally due to run for three weeks, but it ended up going on tour in Europe, Canada, and Australia for two years.
Such success changed both men’s lives for ever. Since then Enda has written 17 stage plays, several of which have won awards, two radio and three screen plays. Cillian has enjoyed a spectacular acting career. He played villains in two 2005 blockbusters: The Scarecrow in Batman Begins, and Jackson Rippner in the thriller Red Eye. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for his part in Breakfast on Pluto, and as an IRA fighter in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which was the Palme d’Or winner 2006. He played Robert Fischer, a corporate high flyer opposite Leonardo Di Caprio in the acclaimed Inception. Both men live near each other in London. Misterman came about when Cillian asked Enda if he had a play for him, and he was dying to get back on the stage.
Love to take him home
Misterman is a very demanding role. The set, which takes up the entire width of the Black Box theatre, plus two levels up, is a vast space for one actor to hold an audience for one and a half hours with no break. Murphy does so faultlessly. For his innocent, child-like periods he stands like a loose marionette: Bent knees, sagging body, his hands defensively crossed in front of him; smiling and talkative. But when he loses it, he moves like an enraged panther, and springs through the set. He is totally dangerous.
I loved his two-way conversations with the people he meets. He becomes both characters in voice and body language. How he beams when Mrs O’Leary compares him with her wasteful son Timmy who does nothing for his mammy. How she’d love to kidnap Magill and take him home with her! And there is Eamonn in the garage with whom he shares a cup of tea. All is sweetness and joy until he spots a nude calendar girl on the wall. Mrs Cleary, at the cafe, who makes wonderful cheesecake, has a soft spot for him. In his fantasy he dances with her, when in walks the angelic Edel ‘ her grace and beauty, so beautiful and pure’. Technically the play is brilliant with Gregory Clarke on sound and Adam Silverman on lighting.
Galway gets into High Summer gear with the start of the Arts Festival. Last year, despite the difficult financial gloom and doom, there were 158,000 attendance’s ( 27 per cent coming from outside the country ), at 273 performances, talks, and exhibitions in 25 venues over 14 days, worth something in the region of € 20m to Galway. This year I understand, there are more events, yet it is all practically sold out. John Crumlish, festival chairman, said that wonderfully, all the main sponsors were on board. There has been no let down in standards or quality.
The arts have remained constant during these last four years or so when so many of our main institutions, such as our political, religious, financial, and professional services have let us down. The people who least benefited from the Celtic Tiger have not wavered in their commitment to the community.