Misterman, Lyttelton, National Theatre
by Enda Walsh
If you thought the UK premiere of Enda Walsh's one-man play Misterman would drown in the National's cavernous Lyttelton Theatre, you'd be wrong. Clearly aware of the space he has to fill, Cillian Murphy has already inhabited every nook of the divided stage and thrown oil drums into the crannies he's missed before the first five minutes are up.
Last seen on screen, Murphy is not afraid of the stage, and the atmosphere he creates is immediately one of intense energy. His character, Thomas Magill, is an evangelical young man trapped in the memory of one fateful day in his hometown of Innisfree. As he darts around the littered warehouse (his mind?), a scattered collection of cassette players snap on and off with recordings of voices from Innisfree, Yeats' fictional village.
The snippets of recorded voices, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, do less to pluralise the play than Murphy, who jumps vocally from squeaky schoolboy to foul-mouthed old man with an ease and energy that fill the theatre. The repertoire is extraordinary: one minute Murphy is cowering under a deluge of beatings as Magill, the next he is sashaying across the floor with a toss of his imaginary curls as the town's lascivious café-owner. He doesn't simply move between Walsh's comic and haunting passages; he embodies both simultaneously.
Even reduced to one character, Walsh remains characteristically and perhaps indulgently long-winded, creating in Magill a tormented chatterbox. His first words are mutterings of part of the school catechism. But for all that particular Irish brand of Catholic guilt, Misterman isn't a play about village religion.
"I wanted it to be about a man and a building," Walsh says in an interview with Sean O'Hagan, "and for the audience to be asking from the off: 'How did he end up there?' And: 'What's he trying to tell us and why?'"
The audience I watched it with were still asking those questions as they left the Lyttelton. For some it was an exposé of a mind going mad, obsessively re-editing the events of one day in the outside world; for others the recorded voices were actually meant to represent actors, presumably seeing them as a cost-cutting measure to reduce the number of actors in these straightened times! Magill's mother complex and the poignancy of a scene in which he talks to the grave of his dead father elicited a Freudian reading in some.
For Murphy, Magill's isolation from the village's inhabitants in his homemade industrial cave is a reflection of his internal progression. In the same interview, he says Magill "is one of those people who is like a little baby inside, who started off being pitied, then kept apart and viewed with suspicion, and then mocked in the community. Bit by bit, he has become this marginalised figure who then takes his revenge."
But for Walsh, trying to work out the play's message isn't the point. "Oh, I never think of stuff like that. It's more about form, and how much you can twist the form to fit what you can into it. I think that's what a lot of younger Irish playwrights are grappling with; how to take on the great tradition and fuck it up a bit." This may explain why, even as the full horror of what Magill has done becomes clear, Walsh presents him as a sympathetic character. Bursts of troubling wit and physical comedy keep even the shortest attention span from wandering.
This is reflected in the reviews. The production has been rated five stars by The Daily Express, and four stars by The Telegraph, The Guardian, Evening Standard, Financial Times and Time Out. Only Quentin Letts gives it one star, calling it a "pretentious" play "about people with mental illness" and "small rural communities". But this may say more about the Daily Mail readership than the performance.
Walsh speaks of wanting to take a hammer to rural Ireland, and Misterman certainly does smash up the Irish idyll that still carried weight in the late 1990s when Walsh first wrote the script. But in 2012 what the play highlights is the loneliness of being an old-fashioned evangelist in modern rural Ireland. There is no place for Magill in the twenty-first century. He is as anachronistic as the school catechism that Walsh gives him to speak.