Ballyturk at the National Theatre is somewhat of an enigma. A new play directed and written by Enda Walsh, originally premiering at the Black Box Theatre in Galway this July, it presents us with an Irish 80s Limbo, stating clearly in the programme: “Setting: No time. No place.” There are no windows or doors, the curtains are a sickly dark orange and cupboards are out of reach. It creates an image of a distorted, surreal version of a culturally slow and remote location in Ireland, reminiscent of Craggy Island from the TV show Father Ted. Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi play unnamed characters, trapped in this room and they are simply named in the programme as ‘1’ and ‘2’ (you can tell by my constant reference to the programme that this was hard to follow).
Plot-wise, it was as impenetrable as the room they were stuck in. I spent the first half an hour trying to grasp something to follow. The characters talk of a fictional location called Ballyturk, portraying all of the inhabitants in caricature. These moments are theatrical, as if the characters have prepared them with appropriate lighting, sound and even distorted microphone effects. In between these moments, they have seemingly philosophical discussions about bunny rabbits and other trivial matter. They hear conversations through the walls, suggesting that there is something beyond this room.
My likening to Father Ted is not unfounded, as one of the voices that can be heard is the voice of Pauline McLynn, aka Mrs Doyle. In fact, the play feels like an episode of Father Ted but with the audience taking depressants, and the performers taking stimulants. The two characters are a sort of Dougal and Dougaler, both hyper-energetic and constantly questioning everything, like children after too much sugar. Murphy and Murfi are superb, with fantastic physical and vocal performances. Their ability to switch between characters in an instant was very impressive, and I felt that in the hands of lesser performers, this could have been potentially unwatchable. Standout moments were dancing sequences, an example being their morning routine accompanied by ‘The Look of Love’ by ABC.
After an initial fear of the entire play going over my head, I learned to enjoy the nonsense for what it was. Its offbeat humour, wordplay and visual gags were cartoonish and, when well pitched, very funny. A round of biscuit Jenga and the line “I won’t be out-bittered by a lemon” will certainly be remembered for a while. In fact, if the play had continued along this vain for its running time, I would have enjoyed it much more. The final half an hour of the performance begins with an amusing monologue from new entrant, Stephen Rea (named 3 in the programme), before the energy is sucked out of the room, as the play attempts to find meaning in amongst the chaos. It doesn’t work, and apart from a couple of laughs, the final stretch drags.
It is refreshing to see completely bonkers characters and dialogue put to the stage. Great performances from the leads, a striking set by Jamie Vartan, and hilarious dialogue and direction by Walsh; I just wish the play had a focus. It was exhausting to search for meaning, and when clues were given, it was simply unrewarding.
Ballyturk is playing at the National Theatre until 11 October. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website. Photo by Patrick Redmond.