THEATRE, by definition, can never be definitive. But that doesn’t mean it can’t try to be, to reach for the kind of statement that outlasts a production’s life on stage. And this is what Druid Theatre and its director Garry Hynes do. It would have been presumptuous of most companies to fuse their name with that of an iconic playwright, but that’s just what the Galway company did in 2005 with DruidSynge, a towering cycle of plays that form a central pillar in the Irish canon.
Now, Druid have done it again, giving to Tom Murphy its stamp in another juggernaut of a project: DruidMurphy, its cycle of three plays — Conversations on a Homecoming, from 1985; A Whistle in the Dark, from 1961; and Famine, first staged in 1968.
“It was very much a long-held ambition,” says Garry Hynes of the production, which moves to the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork on Sept 11, before continuing to Galway, the Aran Islands, Mayo and the Dublin Theatre Festival next month.
“The relationship between Tom and Druid goes back to the early 1980s and he was very much part of the whole ethos at Druid,” says Hynes, who gave Conversations on a Homecoming its premiere in 1985. For her, “Tom has written an inner history of the Irish nation, and that was the reason to put these plays together. And he’s written some of the greatest roles for Irish actors.”
In typical Druid style, these great roles have been filled using arguably Ireland’s richest natural resource: its actors. “Niall Buggy has been astounding audiences in Whistle in the Dark, while the peerless Eileen Walsh is joined by Aaron Monaghan, Rory Nolan and Marty Rea — all coming to their roles at the perfect age.”
That DruidMurphy opened in London, before transferring to New York, was a statement of intent from Hynes. “Tom is one of the greatest living writers,” she says, “and too little known abroad. We wanted to shine a spotlight on his work.”
Murphy is possibly the most important, and the most influential, playwright in the country. Enda Walsh, Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh — their work rages against the boundaries of naturalism, but it was Murphy who tore down the walls.
In Ireland, Murphy’s name is often spoken in the same breath as that of his great contemporary, Brian Friel. Yet it is Friel who became the global box-office brand, though you could hardly call him a populist. Like Murphy’s, Friel’s work, too, is a complex negotiation between history and memory. In his first international hit, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Friel literally splits the Irishman in two — into Gar Public and Gar Private — an image of discontinuity and disruption as emphatic as anything in Murphy’s early work.
Hynes cites Friel’s early success with Philadelphia and the phenomenon that was Dancing at Lughnasa, and says that “sometimes these things are a matter of circumstance”. Yet she does admit that there might be something about Murphy’s work that, “on the face of it, is more difficult to engage with initially”.
It is true that, for all his ability to disrupt comforting lies about Irish identity, Friel’s work never has the rawness and anger of Murphy’s. Hynes’s choice of plays for DruidMurphy is true to this side of Murphy: they amount to an intense examination of how dispossession and emigration has scarred the Irish psyche. Conversations and Whistle in the Dark, in their different ways, explore the melancholy irreconcilability deep in the Irish soul: the fierce need to escape and the unhappy consequences of emigration. In Famine, Murphy brings it all back to the start of our troubled ideas of home and abroad.
It is in this light that the sequencing of Druid’s cycle begins to make sense. Conversations, the most accessible play, shows us over the course of a real-time piss-up in a Galway bar in the 1970s that, for the emigrant, there is no going back. Whistle in the Dark, in all its visceral rawness, takes us back a generation, to the 1960s, to show the flip side of an impossible bind: you can never leave, either. Especially when you are denied the opportunity to leave on your own terms and, in other ways, are cut off from your own past. From the sadness of Conversations and the darkness of Whistle, we go back several more generations, to the Famine, and its uprooting, its legacy of uncertainty, suspicion and despair.
Indeed, Hynes’s choice of plays seems so specifically a map of the Irish psyche that it might be tempting to find in them the very reasons for Murphy’s greater appeal at home than abroad. Hynes sees the plays as “an extraordinary investigation into what it means to be Irish”, and they certainly are that. But is there a chance the message is too specific to this little island, to the exclusion of foreign viewers? Judging from the reactions in New York and London, the answer is no. The New York Times described Murphy’s vision of life as “a constant battle against inner demons and the outer forces of an indifferent world and an absent God”. In this, the paper observed tartly, Murphy’s is “hardly a minority opinion among the English-speaking theater’s great playwrights.” Meanwhile, the Financial Times wrote, “Themes of emigration? ‘Universal themes’ would be truer. Murphy is, I suspect, the greatest dramatist writing in English”.
Discussing this universality of Murphy’s, Hynes goes back to Famine, the one play here that even Irish audiences might begin to think is remote from their experience: “When you engage with the world and the characters in Famine, you find you are engaging with versions of yourself, with a version of the life around you.
“That’s his great gift,” she says. “If the play only documented a historical reality it wouldn’t be interesting. It documents what is in us, what is in our very nature. That has continuity, whether it was 10 years or 100 years ago. It’s from the 1960s, but it’s impossible to believe he hasn’t written it in response to what has been happening in the last five years. And we did Conversations on a Homecoming 25 years ago, but it feels like it was written yesterday.”
Druid is also taking up a residency at the theatre that will involve after-show Q&A sessions with Hynes, and with actors Niall Buggy and Marie Mullen; an actors’ workshop with Beth Cooke, Mary Rea and Eileen Walsh; and school workshops.
“The more we engage with the community where we are, the more we like it,” says Hynes, “whether that’s talkbacks, workshops or just in the pub at night. We always try to do as much as we can. The key engagement is the performance, but there are many other ways, and the better the feedback, the better for us.”
* For details of Druid’s residence at the Everyman Palace Theatre, see everymanpalace.com. For DruidMurphy tour dates, www.druid.ie