Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Ballyturk, National Theatre

Review: Ballyturk, National Theatre

In one of my more mischievous moments at the Edinburgh Fringe, half-cut and looking to stir some pub table passions, I started arguing that access was a waste of time. Theatre, I ploughed on, serves a very specific type of person and, as such, there’s no need to go signing up as many people as possible. Some people just don’t need theatre like others do. Like we do.

OK, so the access thing was knowingly OTT. Clearly, not everyone that needs theatre will find theatre of their own accord, and it, theatre, can so easily make the wrong first impression and end up turning people off it for a lifetime. That was sake of argument stuff. Three-pint devil’s advocate.

However, I stand by the premise: theatre serves some people more than others. Some of us need theatre. It holds us well, for whatever reason. It opens up a space (and I don’t just mean a physical space) that a certain type of person can’t live without. Something about its inherent ambiguity, perhaps, or its queerness; its collaboration or slipperiness – who knows?

Either way, there are people that need theatre and that’s why, no matter how archaic and arcane it can appear, theatre continues to exist. I’m not sure it’ll ever have truly widespread appeal, but I know for certain that it will never die out. Some proportion of the population – us freaks and weirdoes, perhaps, we unhappy few – couldn’t live without it. If it didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it.

Enda Walsh is fascinated by that necessity of theatre. Why, his plays ask, do people enact stories? Why do people need to make theatre? His methodology is simple. Walsh puts theatre in a vacuum. That is, he gets rid of the audience and the industry. In his plays, no one’s watching and no one’s earning. Characters make theatre for themselves – and not just to make a living. The question, then, is why?

In The New Electric Ballroom (2005), three women re-enact the past, tales of their teenage follies, in a bid to recapture it. The Walworth Farce (2006) has three men – a father and two sons – replaying their own family history in a warped quest for self-understanding. Ballyturk presents another theory: escapism and safety.

This time, we’re in a warehouse. It looks like a vast hollowed out breezeblock. Wooden cupboards line its walls, some impractically high. Tucked in one corner is a shower. There’s a kitchenette squished into another. Most of the space is empty, a giant stage, on which two men – named only as 1 and 2 – play out an Under Milk Wood-style multi-role show about a fictional village called Ballyturk.

Now, the play’s flaw is that Ballyturk could be anywhere and anything. It doesn’t matter who the two men invent and embody, only that they invent and embody. They’re fantasists, but the nature of their flights of fancy aren’t important. As such, you don’t need to tune into the details, only the overall situation. Walsh’s play is both eloquent and flabby: the frame is the artwork, the picture inside it isn’t important.

Each morning, an alarm breaks the silence. The two men – Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi, spring-loaded jitterbugs both – burst into action, sprinting through a chaotic, slapsticky morning routine. Imagine Wallace and Gromit with clever choreography instead of machinery. They slip and slide about, chewing on toothbrushes, charging through clouds of talc and diving into sweaters. Breakfast is wolfed down at warp-speed. Their crazed ablutions – and what a demented joy they are to watch – are really a warm-up game, clattered through to some upbeat pop song in readiness for what follows.

Because these two live for their theatre. Back goes an orange curtain, revealing a wall of portrait sketches, Ballyturk’s residents. In flies a dart and they’re off, cycling through another day in Ballyturk. They play little old ladies cowering at home and big bruising men hulking down the streets, schoolkids skipping off to school and posties ambling the streets. Murfi, in particular, shapeshifts beautifully, like a man in a suit full of itching powder, trying to scratch off his skin.

Neither one is comfortable as themselves. Everyday realities – those simple requisites of survival like eating and washing – are kept to a minimum. They need the routine, the certainty of the script. The outside world is banished entirely. Their only encounters with it are the voices that bleed through the walls: unseen individuals that inspire Ballyturkians.

Walsh directs, by the way, and there’s one super-smart decision at play. He embraces the vocabulary of onstage reality and tangible materials: pratfalls, fire, talc, darts, Rune-Goldberg routines. The aesthetic follows suit: BALLYTURK spelt out in neons, a nod to Forced Entertainment and co, for sure.

Because, of course, none of this is real: no matter how much it signifies it. These private theatremakers are cocooned off from the world. They know nothing of it. They could be the Plato’s Cave Rep Company. Or Peter Pan’s Lost Boys refusing to grow up, preferring to play forever. And even in here, they’re not entirely safe: one bangs his head against the wall until it bleeds.

Sure enough though, as in The New Electric Ballroom and The Walworth Farce, reality intrudes. The back wall tears open to reveal an idyllic landscape: a green hill and a blue sky. And Stephen Rea, 3, stood in a sensible black suit.

Rea’s 3 is the grounded realist, a man of the world. He’s a collector, he says; a man ready to monetise their show, to send it out into the world and subject it to the prevailing systems. His socks are a flash of colour. There’s something of 1 and 2 in him, but it’s suppressed, limited to the ankles. They offer him biscuits: a jenga tower of biscuits. Play is all they know. “Everything you’ve imagined,” he says, trying to tempt them into the world, “It’s out there.”

It’s true. The world isn’t half as scary as they’d imagined – and holed up in this breezeblock, in their fantastical imaginings, their childish games, the pair can have no impact on it. They might as well not exist. Eventually, he coaxes Murphy’s character out – to die a death of sorts, to try his hand in the real world – leaving Murfi’s all alone, “filling a room with words.” (Have you ever heard a better description of theatre? Again: “filling a room with words.”)

You can understand the appeal, though. What a beautiful room this is, where time takes its own course and cuckoo clocks burst into flame, where flowers spring from the walls and cupboards release ball ponds. Where you can sing flies back to life and dance, and dance, and dance to the most joyful songs ever written. It’s no surprise that the cycle continues: Murphy may step outside, but through a panel in the wall comes a new recruit, a new playmate for Murfi, a child, unwilling and probably incapable of growing up and taking on the world.

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