Arlington [a love story] by Enda Walsh makes Beckett’s Waiting for Godot appear plot driven as the playwright’s vision yields an unrelenting feast of grief and captivity that lacks any of his usual humour.
Friday evening, in late July, and the promenade in Salthill is drenched in a resplendent pink and purple glow as we leave the light of evening to go into the darker environs of Leisureland for Arlington [a love story] by Enda Walsh.
Walsh is climbing the steps of the venue as we get there. It is not a stretch to see him as resident playwright of this festival as he again premieres his work at the Galway International Arts Festival.
Dublin born, Cork realised, and London based, Walsh has been adopted by Galway. The atmospheric vision of his plays fits with the bleak and mesmerising wilds of the West and his work has adorned this fortnight for years.
The unusual venue – an amusement park transformed – has an eager audience waiting to see where his penetrating gaze is focused.
A curtain lifts on a vast white space: a sterile waiting room or cell with bolted down blue plastic seats, an aquarium, and a single window underneath which is a 1950s radio. There is a ticket machine, a palm tree and an LED screen where numbers are displayed. Lights flicker ominously.
In this tower, somewhere in the future, people are being held against their will.
While the setting changes slightly from play-to-play, the world Walsh so viscerally invokes remains constant.
In his one-hander Misterman you had the musings of Cillian Murphy playing a crazed country preacher. The Walworth Farce saw a family stuck in a play-within-a-play in a tower block in suburban London. Ballyturk was set in a rural dwelling where three characters discuss the imaginary and eponymous town.
The patterns are familiar: one setting, captive characters, ceaseless dialogue and a clearly structured routine.
Here, in Arlington, we’re once more in a high-rise tower but this time we’re amongst the clouds in a surveillanced waiting room in a nondescript location. What fate awaits these souls when their number flashes up on the LED board?
His audiences are dropped into these strange scenes and made witness lonely characters constantly working within the confines of their captivity. They are people nobody usually thinks about. Pushed to extremes, the hope is that the frenetic frequency leads to some realisation within the characters and, when it comes off, the audience too.
While the manic routines cumulate, memories and the past are revealed through dialogue, dance and projection creating an atmosphere of mounting and overwhelming chaos.
Crucially, the playwright leaves space for the viewer to come in to his work. He does this by ensuring the plot doesn’t clutter things. The work elicits your subconscious reaction through participation. Audiences love to have a role and he trusts them to make the necessary connections that lead towards empathy.
When it works, the result is a triple-trapeze act between the audience, the actors and the intensity of the drama.
Arlington has the components with which we are familiar but the usual synergy between audience, actors and the drama is missing and with that the magic of the coherent whole. The connections are too much of a stretch; bereft of any narrative drive we’re left instead with conjecture.
Scenes one and three open with a repeated yet reversed snippet of a radio play where two country characters, Maureen and Michael, talk about the weather and enquire after each other’s children. Each seems to have gone astray. Is it just malicious gossip? Or are these the people locked up before us? We get no answer.
Isla (Charlie Murphy) is the first character we meet. Indefinitely trapped, she seems well used to the situation as she stretches out for another day. Revealed after the drawing back of a curtain, and the crashing of glass, is an adjacent room where a chronically nervous Young Man (Hugh O’Connor) is sitting. He communicates to Isla over a loudspeaker while watching her on numerous tv monitors.
The man who usually talks to her has gone on something more permanent than a holiday, we’re told, and Isla has to explain to the newbie what they did all day. “Yeah there was a lot of talk. Some music and entertainment-of-a-sort but mostly just talking, you know. My plans and dreams and stuff.” This new relationship is our love story.
Conjured from the conversations between Isla and the supervisor, throughout the show we see impressions of an imagined outside world shown to us via projections. These play out on the white walls. This deft ploy is used to show the characters’ thoughts as dreamlike sequences of forest walks, bustling city streets and talk show hosts. Captivity is infiltrating their minds.
These Orwellian set-piece taunt us with their glimpses of character. The cute dialogue between the anxious O’Connor and the impatient Murphy sees them warm to each other in these bizarre introductory circumstances. There is a genuine connection, which, seen as they’re never in the same room, is quite an achievement by the actors.
As routines break apart their bond grows. Leading questions uncover some of the past. Isla tells how she got here as a four year old and the menace of the whole towered project is hinted at. Mostly, however, they bat facile banalities back and forward. They talk of their favourite biscuits or animals.
The towers can easily be interpreted as a critique of the current refugee crisis or our direct provision no man’s land. These cells are where lives are put on hold; they’re internment camps for families with no definite future.
Scene two is performed solely through contemporary dance and can be seen as a departure from Walsh’s previous theatre. Or perhaps it is a continuation of his operatic work over the last 18 months which includes two pieces: Lazurus with David Bowie, premiered in New York last year, and The Last Hotel, which ran during the 2015 Dublin Theatre Festival.
This dance echoes the pain and loneliness of the first scene with its violent moves. Oona Doherty – whose character is never named and could symbolise the mass of people who’ve gone through these towers – uses the full stage as her beguiling movement gets across the anguish of the situation.
She looks distinctively and confusingly like Isla who has gone before her.
Choreographed by Emma Martin, the dance ends with a spectacular defenestration.
This is the culmination of Walsh toying with his audience as he leaves windows open and doors ajar clearly leaning heavily on the escape motif so cherished by his trapped characters.
There is tragedy in the leap to certain death and the body falling from these towers, through the clouds, immediately evokes 9/11’s falling man. As with 9/11, these are new horrors that we are unable to process. But there is a lack of context for us to care deeply enough about this dancer’s plummet.
With contemporary dance, Walsh is enlisting more firepower in his sensory assault but unfortunately combining drama, dance and music into a coherent dramatic whole is where this production has overstretched itself and left its audience behind.
Unlike The Walworth Farce and Ballyturk there is little comic respite, this choreographed madness goes from start to finish with characters who aren’t nuanced enough for us to suffer their acute strain with them.
In act three we meet the now captive and beaten supervisor. There’s a new female voice (Olwen Fouéré), “Are you sorry now for what you did?”
There is another scene conjured on the wall. This time it’s a series of faces that flash up, people of all ages and ethnicities. The most sustained speech is played over the intercom like a drum beat gathering distress:
” – and what passes as life – the exhaustion of it – the getting up and stepping out – the choice of which road to travel…. – to read and write and learn – and stretch and age … – to grow they call it … only born and building towards what?
… no better than ants, someone said… and before progress was shown up for what it is… an instinct to clean up… it’s the ‘lower ones’… and at first horror when spoken – when made whole this idea – when said – but felt in everyone … and grown in dark corners until it can be held up as an answer this idea … how large can they grow those towers? – how many can they build?”
This staccato speech, like the rest of the play, has snippets that the audience can invest with their own understanding. Enda Walsh is getting at something more: a horrific final solution, a culmination of the world’s ills, a Trump Tower for imprisoning refugees that stretches through the clouds.
A harrowing work of grief, loneliness and captivity, but without a more identifiable subject matter, or greater depth to the characters, we as an audience are reluctant to carry their burden past the final curtain, which comes as a relief.
* production photos by Patrick Redmond