Enda Walsh’s Theatrics Reach their Zenith in Gleeson Fuelled Farce

Dinny: A day of twists and turns and ducks and dives and terrible shocks. A story to be retold, no doubt, and cast in lore. For what are we, Maureen, if we’re not our stories?


Blake:
We’re the lost and the lonely

Enda Walsh mixes Joyce’s colloquial affinity and hi-jinxs with Beckett’s penchant for nothingness and everything to great comic and tragic effect. This assault on all the senses leaves the audience pondering what all that absurd, manic entertainment was? We ponder for days, some people might still be clapping and so they should – Walsh’s stream of consciousness theatre has reached its zenith with the Gleesons in The Walworth Farce.

In many ways Brendan Gleeson has been the father figure of modern Irish acting. So it is fitting that he plays the character of Dinny the patriarch of Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce. Brendan’s sons Domhnall and Brain Gleeson play Blake and Sean, Dinny’s sons. And just in case this wouldn’t be enough of a challenge they also play a myriad of other characters in what amounts to a manic costume switching extravaganza that’s so well executed it’s mind boggling.

This is the first time Brendan has been on stage with both Brian and Domhnall.

The play is about a Cork father and his two sons who have emigrated to London and now spend their time trapped in a bedsit in Walworth acting out a scene that depicts their past. This play within a play is used brilliantly by Walsh to reveal the tragic story of why the family left Cork. The story elevates the farcical hi-jinx on stage into pure theatre. The tragedy seeps through to the audience quickly heightening each parody into the realm of absurdity.

What this play does is challenge the extent to which people can leave their pasts behind. It’s an emigrant’s tale of failed dreams and the lonely suburban existence that greets many who leave these shores in search of something better.

***

As the curtain comes up Dinny and his brother Paddy (played by Sean) are carrying their mother’s cardboard coffin after her funeral. They put it down in a dank 70s style bedsit with bunk beds, a wardrobe and a sparse kitchen. The walls are such that the audience can see the whole flat. ‘An Irish Lullaby’ on the wireless radio begins the farce and whenever this music is played the characters resume their positions – it’s their cue. With the repetition of the various scenes we drift deeper into Walsh’s madcap world of horse caused deaths, whiskey fuelled wills and deceit.

Within the first act there are ten characters played by the three Gleesons – Brendan just plays Dinny – and it’s only as the curtain comes down on the first half that they’re joined on stage by the only non-Gleeson cast member, Leona Allen.

By the time Leona Allen enters as Hayley we’ve learned the rules of Walsh’s abstract world and are totally immersed in it. Somehow, we are aware of Dinny’s plan to covet his mother’s will off his brother Paddy and can see clearly Blake and Sean’s ensnarement. Hayley is the checkout girl from Tesco who Sean meets daily when he goes to buy the same bag of groceries needed to re-enact the scene.

On this day Sean picked up the wrong bag of groceries and Hayley has kindly come to deliver him the bag he left behind. She is the outside world that collides with the inner delusions of Dinny’s farce and unravels everything. This is Leona Allen’s professional debut. Full of energy when she arrives, Hayley’s smile soon fades as she realises Sean’s predicament and Dinny coaxes her into playing a reluctant part in the set piece. She is literally doused in white paint by Dinny because her black skin is so foreign to his claustrophobic world.

***

People who are used to Walsh’s plays will be familiar with the dynamism of his stage directions – the actors are never idol, sweat is their currency.
Director Sean Foley and the Gleesons have translated the stage directions in The Walworth Farce into incredible set pieces. The actors are constantly moving, delivering their lines while jumping from the wardrobe into a new costume or popping from under one wig to the next. The roles are juggled seamlessly by flipping a skirt into a dress and back down again while managing to hold both sides of the conversation. They recreate the past for the audience while never moving from the cramped bedsit. This all happens in seconds; it’s hammed up and perfectly timed buffoonery. The rhythm of this slapstick performance is so striking; it bristles with the frenetic energy that is a signature of Walsh’s work.
Domhnall Gleeson is phenomenal as a cast of females switching characters flamboyantly, sometimes even mid-sentence. One of the women he plays is his absent mother Maureen whose cooking the boys reminisce about, the last time they saw her was when they were five and left Cork.
***
The Gleeson’s and Sean Foley have managed to imbue this production with all the theatrics necessary to fully realise this play’s harrowing potential.
With such an acting family on show it is fitting that there’s an acting trophy up for grabs. Dinny always awards this to himself while his sons toil, slaves to their father’s authorial delusions. If we are our stories, as Dinny quips at the outset, then he is determined to direct and star in his. But while Dinny, Sean and Blake are trapped the audience isn’t. We get to see the destitution of this family’s lot through repetition and cleverly revealed layers.
Sean is the one character who wishes to escape. The play’s drama focuses around his desire to leave and the battle that ensues. The difference between Blake and Sean is that Sean can see all this for what it is. He has seen his father at his worst. He saw what Dinny did on the depicted day that they constantly recreate. He knows all this play-acting isn’t real. His rebellion is buoyed by his getting out of the flat daily and his interaction with Hayley and the outside world. But it’s still incredibly difficult for him, he can’t just walk out on his brother.
It isn’t in Walsh’s remit to end things well, the lads are twenty five and twenty four now and they’ve been doing this since they left home two decades ago, escaping is possible but how would the outside world treat them?
Blake: Dad all talk of Ireland, Sean. Everything’s Ireland. His voice is stuck in Cork so it’s impossible to forget what Cork is. (A pause.) This story we play is everything. (A pause.) Once upon a time my head was full of pictures of Granny’s coffin and Mr and Mrs Cotter and Paddy and Vera and Bouncer the dog and all those busy pictures in our last day. (Smiling.) ‘Cause you’d say Dad’s words and they’d give pictures, wouldn’t they, Sean? And so many pictures in your head…Sure you wouldn’t want for the outside world even if it was a good world! You could be happy. (A pause.) But all them pictures have stopped. I say his words and all I can see is the word. A lot of words piled on top of other words. There’s no sense to my day. ’cause the sense isn’t important any more. No pictures. No dreams. Words only. (A pause.) All I’ve got is the memory of the roast chicken, Sean.

 ***

There is little way to explain how this all works without you seeing it. It shouldn’t, but it triumphantly does.

Much of this must be down to pairing Ireland’s best theatre writer with Ireland’s best family of actors – Landmark Productions deserves recognition for this coup. The Gleesons as the family only serves to heighten the meta-dramatics that are always at work in Walsh’s plays. After all this is a play about a play; a farce on repeat which reveals an Irish emigrant’s tale on loop. The dream dreamt, the performance performed while the circular reality is lived and starkly revealed to the audience.

You must go. Snap up the remaining tickets, queue for returns or just chance your arm on the night, do whatever you have to do, because once February 8th comes and goes this production will be relegated to our pasts and our recreations will not do it justice.

***

Dinny: The telling of the story…it helps me, Sean.

We’re making a routine that keeps our family safe. Isn’t that what we’ve done here?

A slight pause.

Sean: But none of these words are true.

A pause.

Dinny: It’s my truth, nothing else matters. You can never leave here without poor Blake, can you, Sean?

Sean: No, Dad.

We are our deluded stories indeed.

***

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