Mister Murphy

May 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

What can I say about Cillian Murphy? He can play any role, from a reluctant Irish militant to a wilfully innocent transgender teenager to a wide and terrifying range of madmen, with utter conviction and consummate skill. He has one of the most arresting pairs of eyes in existence (there is even an entire blog devoted to them, which I won’t link to as I feel it epitomises all the worst about blogging). And he looks better in a dress than I do, which is NOT FAIR.

So it probably won’t surprise you that last summer, when I was living in a theatre-free town on the West Coast and read that he was performing in Enda Walsh’s Misterman in New York, I was crestfallen. Then, not long after I moved back to London, I found out that the same play was coming to the National Theatre. To say I was insanely excited is putting it lightly. I saw it last week, and for my first visit to the theatre in nearly three years I couldn’t have asked for a more extraordinary experience.

Actually, saying that Murphy performs in Misterman isn’t entirely accurate. He IS the play. With the exception of a few recorded voices emanating from ancient tape recorders (shades of Beckett), he plays every role himself – or rather, every role filtered through the fractured consciousness of Thomas Magill, self-appointed saviour/recording angel to the village of Innisfree (which is about a million miles removed from the Innisfree of Yeats’s poem). When we first meet Thomas, he’s living in what looks like a vast junk-filled warehouse whose true identity Walsh never spells out – it could equally be just what it appears, a psychiatric ward or the inside of Thomas’s head. Assuming the latter (the interpretation I find the most convincing) adds the implication that, like the tape loops – or indeed a theatrical run itself – the script is one he is doomed to re-enact for eternity.

One of the extraordinary things about Murphy’s performance is how – through the fusion of the broken musicality of Walsh’s text and the elasticity of his voice, face and body – he manages to conjure up all the residents of Innisfree, from the town drunk to the teashop proprietress he suspects of ‘indecency’ to the new girl in town who fatally plays along with some joker’s scheme of disguising her as an angel to dupe Thomas, in all their variety, and at the same time suggest that everything we see and hear is filtered (and twisted) through Thomas’s monomaniacal vision. The stage of the Lyttelton (the second-largest of the NT’s spaces) might seem like a dauntingly large space for a single actor to fill, but it felt fully populated from the moment the lights came up.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Misterman, though, is the position in which actor and playwright put the audience. Thomas, for all his rage, his obsessions and the violence with which they play out, is nonetheless a sympathetic character – as Murphy describes him in this piece in the Guardian, he’s the odd man out treated by an uncomprehending community first as an object of pity, than as one of fear and suspicion, then of mockery. I very much doubt it’s an accident that we often find ourselves laughing at – decidedly not with – Thomas, a laughter which implicates us among the people of Innisfree whose derision pushed him to the edge and then over it.

Murphy also suggests, in the same article, that one reason the play seemed to have so much resonance with audiences when it was first performed in Galway is that Thomas is such a recognisable type in rural Ireland – the village idiot, the strange, misunderstood man who walks around muttering to himself all the time who you pray is harmless. I wouldn’t argue with that, but I think Misterman’s power ultimately lies in its universality. Thomas Magill is someone who could – and does – exist anywhere.

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