Charlie Murphy: Enjoying dark days on stage and screen

Despite returning as Siobhán in Love/Hate, actress Charlie Murphy’s focus right now is on her role in Mark O’Rowe’s star-studded new play, writes Pádraic Killeen

Charlie Murphy: Enjoying dark days on stage and screen

CHARLIE Murphy has a strange few weeks ahead. While half the nation will be talking about the actions of her character Siobhán in Love/Hate, which returns to our screens on October 5, the Wexford actress has to insulate herself somewhat from the discussion as she takes to stage in Mark O’Rowe’s new play, Our Few and Evil Days.

The Abbey Theatre production boasts a stellar cast that also includes Sinead Cusack, Ciarán Hinds and Murphy’s Love/Hate co-star Tom ‘Nidge’ Vaughan-Lawlor. Murphy plays a young woman who brings a new boyfriend home to meet her parents, a move that destructively prises open a dark and secreted history in the family.

For Murphy, her work in Love/Hate ensures that such pitch-black material is second nature. Indeed, her early work, with Wexford’s Bare Cheek theatre company, centred on distinctly bleak material by the likes of Sarah Kane and Enda Walsh.

“I remember reading Disco Pigs in my late teens,” she says. “Living in Wexford, and having had quite a sheltered upbringing, to come across something like Disco Pigs was what made me want to be an actor. There was a bigger world out there and there were no rules about how to see it.”

Murphy is a fan of O’Rowe. “One of my favourite plays is Terminus,” she says. “I saw it in the Abbey and fell in love with it. It’s the one play that I walked away from where I felt like I’d just seen a film. The story was vivid and visceral. I could see the high-rise buildings and I could see the demon made of worms. It was like I’d just watched Pan’s Labyrinth.”

Murphy last appeared on the Abbey stage in the 2011 production of Pygmalion (“another world entirely from Mark O’Rowe,” she says). Her performance earned her a best actress award at the Irish Theatre Awards at a time when her television career was blossoming in Love/Hate. She’s since moved to London, cementing big roles in hit dramas like The Village and Ripper Street. “After I graduated, I didn’t work for a year,” she says. “So when I got Love/Hate I was just thrilled to get it, without even knowing what it was going to be like,” she says. “My view was ‘OK, this will be a few days’ practice in front of a camera and on a set’.”

Five years later, she’s still ‘practising’. Her Love/Hate role has evolved from support to one of the moral centres of the show. “Well, [writer] Stuart Carolan is incredible,” she says. “It’s been such a privilege for us to come back every year and read scripts with such meat in them, and so many creative choices to make.”

Murphy is tight-lipped about the plot of the fifth season, but suggests that Siobhán’s fortitude will harden in her conflict with the gangster kingpin, Nidge. “She’s found this strength from having survived this far,” she says. “So she’ll carry on. She has a vendetta with Nidge.”

For O’Rowe, Our Few and Evil Days is his first play since his 2007 hit, Terminus. O’Rowe’s stock couldn’t be higher following the acclaimed revival last year of his 1999 breakthrough, Howie the Rookie. (Featuring Vaughan-Lawlor as the sole performer, that production will return briefly to the Olympia Theatre in November, before dates in London’s Barbican and BAM, New York.)

Our Few and Evil Days is a departure for O’Rowe. His reputation has been built on monologue plays full of lyrical and often grotesque imagery, married to sinuous, electrifying wordplay. But the new play is more traditional, built on dialogue, a format familiar to O’Rowe from his screenplays for films such as Intermission, Perrier’s Bounty and Broken.

“The rhythm of the language and the music of it is the same,” says O’Rowe. “I take great pleasure in the musicality of language. So that’s still very strong. But in terms of the linguistic fireworks, there’s not so much of that. But one thing I discovered — and it’s not completely new to me, because of the film work — is that the thing that dramas have, and that monologues don’t have, is subtext.

“Monologues don’t really have subtext. You’ve got to believe the guy that’s talking to you is telling you the truth. There might be shades to the way he feels about it, but what he says is pretty much what happens. You have to believe that in order for the experience to work. But with people talking to each other, there is constantly subtext and hidden layers, and that’s really been a fun part of it.”

The play’s title is from a passage in the Book of Genesis: the venerable Jacob describes his life as his ‘few and evil’ days on Earth. Is it significant for O’Rowe, or just a nifty title? “Well, it is nifty, right?” says O’Rowe. “It seemed to suit what I was trying to say with the play. It’s an idea that is very pretentious, but it would probably suit nine out of 10 plays, which is the idea that our days on Earth are, by definition, evil, because we’re born with sin. So we’re all guilty.

“And that felt quite strong. Evil contains all the mistakes that we make, including the things we do that are wrong unbeknownst to ourselves.”

O’Rowe says he holds no religious belief, but he returns often to the concept of evil — heinous acts are frequent in his plays. This darkness stems from O’Rowe’s unflinching perspective.

“I believe in chaos,” he says. “I believe in the randomness of life, I believe in the utterly destructive capacity of even the smallest act of violence.”

Because O’Rowe explores the essential connectedness of people’s lives, there is always the germ of hope, a demand that people live with a regard for the others around them.

“I don’t believe in happiness, but I do believe in an attitude to life that can make you more contented,” he says. “I have friends who would feel very strongly about our ‘connectedness’ and find it quite spiritual. I don’t really believe it.

“At the worst, I think it’s a random world of chaos, which is heading toward entropy. We, and everything in it, are going to cease to exist.

“But if that is the case, is life then not more precious because of that? The short time we’re here, we have a choice — we can say ‘let’s make it all about me’ or we can just try to exist in harmony with other people and try to be good to other people.”

-Our Few and Evil Days runs at the Abbey Theatre until October 25

DUBLIN THEATRE FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS

The Seagull and Other Birds, Project Arts Centre: Ireland’s most admired exponents of ‘post-dramatic’ theatre, whatever the hell that really is, Pan Pan return with a new imagining of Chekhov’s The Seagull, one in which the plays’ characters apparently find themselves in a variety of unlikely contexts, from YouTube to television shows. Having previously toyed with Sophocles, Shakespeare and Ibsen, no-one grabs classical texts by the short and curlies quite so vigorously as Pan Pan. But the results are always provocative.

-Until Oct 5

Hamlet, Bord Gáis Energy Theatre: Following an acclaimed production of Hedda Gabler at the festival in 2006, Germany’s Schaubühne theatre returns with a production of Shakespeare’s most famous work. Hamlet is forever popping up in the Dublin Theatre Festival programme, of course, with memorable versions by Conall Morrison, Pan Pan and The Wooster Group all recent enough, but the joy of Hamlet is its irrepressible freshness. This new production by Thomas Ostermeier, one of the most feted directors in Europe, has been championed for its self-contorting engagement with a play that never stales.

-Until Saturday

Brigit/Bailegangaire, Olympia: Nobody gets the work of Tom Murphy like Druid Theatre Company and its director Garry Hynes. The company’s revival of Bailegangaire finds Marie Mullen putting in one of the most supreme performances of recent years as Mommo, a woman in the grip of dementia, repeatedly telling the same enigmatic story: a stunning tale of rage, recrimination, mirth, and spite that is the same story each of us makes of our own pasts. Murphy’s new play Brigit, a prequel to Bailegangaire, is a wonderful exercise in grace and lyricism, full of wit and charm.

-Oct 1–5

Ganesh vs. the Third Reich: O’Reilly Theatre: Part of the Australian strand of this year’s programme, this production by Back to Back theatre company was a recent hit at the Edinburgh Fringe. The plot involves the journey of an Indian god — that half-man, half-elephant fella, Ganesh — to Nazi Germany to reclaim the symbol of the Swastika. In the vein of contemporary meta-theatre, however, there emerges a second plot, one about disability and performance, in which the actors onstage collide with their director.

-Oct 1–4

Vardo, Oonagh Young Gallery: The ‘Monto cycle’, a four-chaptered study of the cultural history of a small section of inner-city Dublin, has been perhaps the most exceptional Irish theatre event of the past decade. It comes to an end with Vardo, an incisive glimpse at the underworld of organised prostitution in the Monto area today. Conceived by ANU Productions’ director Louise Lowe, the power of the ‘Monto cycle’ is that it has never permitted the audience any historical distance, but has shown instead how past, present and future are terminally implicated in one another, while at the same time suggesting the potential of a more radical ‘present’, if only it could be harnessed.

-Until Oct 12

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