The world of Tom Murphy’s 1983 play is filled with music: the chimes of the church bell signalling the hours, the rhythmic whacks of a telephone switch-hook to dial a connection, and, of course, the soaring voice of Italian opera singer Beniamino Gigli ushering in new possibilities. The latter might relieve JPW King (Declan Conlon), a self-help therapist or “dynamatologist”, who from looking out his office window can only muster the pitiable: “Christ, how am I going to get through today?”
Not is all as it seems in the dishevelled workplace, low-ceilinged and encased in Jonathan Fensom’s set design. Ordinariness and artifice are blending under Sinéad McKenna’s sorcerous lamps, intermingling white super-real daylight with the yellow and orange incandescence of indoor lights. Something alchemical is promised in the arrival of an Irishman (Denis Conway), a property developer whose wife has requested him to talk to somebody about his state of mind. The mantra of King’s organisation is that anything is possible (in its conflation of whirling atoms and self-realisation it resembles the Church of Scientology). Regardless, he finds his new patient’s depression uneasy to sum up.
“There’s too many facts in the world!” the Irishman declares. He only wishes to be able to sing like the master Gigli, and such is the tone of Murphy’s play: preferring magic over science.
The funnily dark drama is given hope by director David Grindley in a rigorous and expertly-tuned staging for the Gate Theatre. While Conway’s powerful range is vast, rising from mumbles to operatic projections, it’s his various tricks that compel: mute screams in moments of rage, the recurring release of a single pining note, all desperately trying to will something new into existence.
Conlon is not as loud but his voice is just as rich, his swift delivery conveying the very spiralling of King’s madness. There is melody even in the crying of his adulterous lover Mona (Dawn Bradfield), eccentric like a hallucination but brutally believable by the end.
On the brink, King leads us into an intoxicated re-telling of the creation myth that has Adam kicked out of Eden, not for biting the apple but for gutsily asking God “Who I am?”, prompting the better question “I am who may be?”. In a Faustian twist, the possibility of transformation feels strong: “This night I’ll conjure: if a man can bend a spoon with beady steadfast eye, I’ll sing like Gigli or I’ll die”.
Murphy’s cynicism towards the Church is well documented across his drama but the spiritual inversion felt here is truly masterful, suspecting salvation to be found in damnation. It’s a testament to Grindley’s extraordinary command. When conducted as good as this, Murphy’s music may very well cheat reality.
The Gigli Concert is playing at the Gate Theatre until 27 June. For more information and tickets, see the Gate Theatre website. Photo by Pat Redmond.