Reuniting Enda Walsh and Cillian Murphy for the first time since Disco Pigs, Misterman is one of the flagship productions of this year’s arts festival and it fully lives up to its headline billing.
By turns uproariously funny and darkly ferocious, the play fizzes with Walsh’s trademark verbal brio and flair. Under Walsh’s direction, Cillian Murphy turns in an electrifying, bravura performance as Thomas Magill, the prophet without honour in his hometown who seeks in vain to set his neighbours on the road of godly righteousness.
Magill combines child-like innocence with outbursts of seething frustration and self-doubt and a bubbling undertow of psychosis and Murphy compellingly brings all these traits to play.
In a series of vivid, often hilarious, cameos, he also brilliantly creates sundry villagers whom Thomas encounters on his journey round the town. Other villagers are encountered via recordings on a series of tape machines which Magill repeatedly listens to and which sometimes torment him by springing into life on their own.
Jamie Vartan’s striking design uses the full width of The Black Box space which, with his large pillars, overhead steel gangway and assorted debris, makes the venue resemble a derelict factory, an apt visual metaphor for the doomed ambition of Thomas’s grand project.
There are also telling contributions from Donncha Dennehy’s score, Gregory Clarke’s sound design, and Adam Silverman’s lighting and it is especially impressive how all the elements in this technically demanding show knit seamlessly together. What will most linger in the memory though is Murphy’s powerhouse performance as he takes us on Thomas’s quest for the heavenly, that finds only a hellish finale.
One of the tape-recorded voices in Misterman is that of Eileen Walsh, Murphy’s Disco Pigs co-star, and she also features in another solo show, Request Programme, penned by Franz Xaver Kroetz, directed by Pat Kiernan, and staged by Corcadorca. While both plays deal with themes of loneliness, they also offer striking contrasts.
In place of Misterman’s verbal fireworks and large-scale presentation, Request Programme is entirely wordless and features the mundane minutiae of domesticity.
It also creates a fascinating relationship between actor and audience. Audience members are ushered into an Eyre Square apartment, the ‘home’ of Walsh’s character, and walk around the rooms, examining photos, opening cupboards, examining the books on her bookshelf.
After a short time, the hall door is heard to open and close, high heels come clacking down the hall and Walsh enters the living room/kitchen, neatly dressed in blouse and skirt, clearly just home from work.
Like voyeurs we stand or sit around her as she proceeds to go through her everyday routine; getting changed out of her work clothes, flicking through the TV channels, browsing a magazine, making something to eat, going to the loo, listening to John Creedon on the radio.
It may sound resolutely undramatic but slowly details emerge that reveal glimpses of anguish beneath this woman’s orderly surface. That very orderliness comes to seem somewhat obsessive, she seems fixated on cleanliness, vigorously cleaning anything after she has used it, removing occasional specks of dirt or crumbs which elicit fleeting looks of disgust from her.
Every now and again a pained look flickers across her features and it becomes evident that hers is one of those lives of quiet desperation. There is a sense of irony as well that here she is utterly alone and yet with 20 people closely gathered around here, almost as if we were ghosts.
The play’s ultimate denouement might feel a little predictable, but it remains a fascinating piece and Walsh performs it with immense finesse and nuanced subtlety.