Although Tom Murphy did not expressly write Conversations on a Homecoming (1985), A Whistle in the Dark (1961) and Famine (1968) as a trilogy, Druid’s curation of the three plays invites us to see the dramas as being intimately connected. In the incredibly ambitious DruidMurphy production, the company that has been staging Murphy’s work since the 80s, draws from his oeuvre plays, written across a twenty year span, that take an unflinching look at the impact of emigration on the Irish psyche over a hundred year period. While performances can be viewed separately, encountering them as a cycle allows you to feel the cumulative effect of the corpus – the enduring power of Murphy’s (and indeed Druid’s) art, uniquely experienced through an act of spectatorial endurance.
In Conversations on a Homecoming, Michael (Rea) returns to Galway from America, where he emigrated in search of work and a better life. Set in a small town pub in the 1970s, old friends gather to meet the recent arrival. Rea’s Michael cuts a dash with his slicked back hair and three-piece suit, talking up his life in the States while denigrating the country he left behind. Tom (Lombard), Michael’s friend since childhood, soon picks holes in his story, and is quick to suggest that he has in fact come back for good, despite being unable to publicly admit it just yet.
While Michael reminds us that success in America is by no means guaranteed, this West of Ireland town is also the site of fading promise. A photo of JFK above the bar recalls the excitement that surrounded the President’s visit to Ireland in 1963, but there is nothing glamorous about the pub in which it now hangs, with its shabby wallpaper and poor partition. As Michael notes, the venue has gone downhill, and even JJ, the charismatic man who once rallied local youth in the 60s, is now sick and nowhere to be seen.
In terrific performances by Rea and Lombard, the play’s driving tensions centralise around the one who left and the one who stayed behind. Reminded by doddery landlady Missus (Mullen) that the men were thought of as twins when they were children, we are led to read their bickering as a form of self-criticism as much as anything else. Balancing the intensity of their verbal exchanges, other characters spring to life with the smallest of gestures. For instance, Walsh exposes all Peggy’s abandoned aspirations and self-doubt with just one awkward giggle, while Monaghan condenses Liam’s shaky convictions into the ritualised shuffling of keys. Mullen’s barmaid conveys all the tedium of her community in the weary repetition of a drawn-out “yaaas.” Set in one room, if it wasn’t for Hynes’ impeccably timed direction, conversations such as these could easily labour rather than zip along.
The humour which softens the hard edges of Conversations on a Homecoming is entirely absent in A Whistle in the Dark. Set in Coventry in the 1960s, the play focuses on the dysfunctional Carney tribe, and the problems that occur when Michael (Rea) tries to adapt to his new life in England, rather than continuing his family’s history of violence. Brothers Harry (Monaghan), Hugo (Lombard), Iggy (Nolan) and eventually Des (Drea) are not happy with Michael’s attempts to civilise himself, which include marrying English girl Betty (Walsh), and setting up a new home. When Dada (Buggy) arrives, he stokes the brothers’ insecurities, turning his sons against each other with tragic consequences.
Murphy’s dialogue is exquisitely wrought, and under Hynes’ assured guidance the cast delivers it with an urgent, almost thumping momentum. Most of the dramatic intensity circulates around Michael and Harry, played brilliantly by Monaghan and Rea, who initially represent different value systems within their family. But it’s Buggy’s Dada who really gets under the skin. He brilliantly captures the hollow patriarch’s wilting authority, by showing him to be a performer in search of a role as well as an audience. There’s an almost camp quality to his pretension and a melodrama to his rage, and it’s not until his final stuttering moments on stage that we get a clear view of his petrifying cowardice and impotence.
The cycle finishes with Famine, arguably the darkest play of the three. It deals with the Irish famine of 1845-51, which gave rise to Ireland’s first great wave of emigration. Not simply the outcome of potato blight, here we see people faced with the option of leaving or dying because authorities export healthy crops to Britain and fail to look after the Irish. Even as Brian Doherty’s village leader addresses the relief committee, its representative Simmington (Clayton) is foremost concerned that he doesn’t speak directly to his face in case he catches a disease.
While the first two plays are both fluent and fluid, Famine is structured around a series of highly visual and physical episodes of a disintegrating community’s life. With choreography by David Bolger, bodies appear to melt down mounds of clay, swallowing doorways and obstructing paths. With these beautifully arranged sequences, and O’Clery’s subtly anachronistic costumes, Hynes confuses the action’s temporality, letting the past flow into the present, and the cycle come full circle. This choice may feel more powerful conceptually than dramatically, as it sits at odds with the play’s Brechtian quality, and contrasts with the decidedly unromantic impulse that otherwise undergirds the cycle.
The great strength of Hynes’ direction is the manner in which she manages to marshal such intensity of thought and feeling across the three plays, communicated by an extraordinarily attuned and committed ensemble with such clarity and affect. Although set pieces within O’Connor’s design change with each play, the corrugated iron walls remain throughout, as if to signal that a relentless, elemental frustration is being worked out.
What’s striking about Murphy’s perspective on emigration is that there is little difference between those who stay and those who leave. Both groups try to convince themselves, and each other, that they have made the right decision, that they are better off. But beneath this brave façade pulses the at times heart-wrenching desire for purpose and belonging; a yearning to really connect with other people and places. Knowing what they know of themselves, characters spot the longings in each other, sometimes coaxing them to the surface for discussion, but more often than not, violently forcing them to light for mockery and derision. And in Murphy’s world, behind every disillusioned, wounded character is a failed system of political or religious governance.
While emigration may be the recurring theme in Murphy’s drama, and a subject which is once again immediately relevant to contemporary Irish society, what comes across most strongly in viewing this cycle is the sharpness of feeling that charges through the writing. This selection of plays is peopled with characters without a stable sense of place, community, or home. In one way or another, almost everyone seems to be chronically craving and starving, over and over again.
When even those at home feel homesick, Murphy’s cultural preoccupations can be seen to stretch towards more spiritual and existential concerns. In this sense, the idea of famine takes on a more expansive, darker meaning entirely. While there is little obvious sustenance for the characters in Murphy’s universe, in its sheer physical and emotional power, Druid’s production manages to find value in a nation’s continued hunger. Without it, there is no questioning, no action, no transformation.
Fintan Walsh lectures in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary, University of London.