24 July 2012

'Famine' (Lincoln Center Festival 2012)

Among the greatest pleasures of living in New York City are the city’s big, annual international theater festivals like the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave and the Lincoln Center Festival, and the opportunities they provide to see theater work from all over the globe. Anywhere else that I know of—Edinburgh is a notable exception—theatergoers have to trust that some important company from Moscow, Tokyo, or Sydney will make a tour and stop in their city. It’s haphazard and only select troupes make the stop every few years. Here, we get some companies nearly every season and others that come along as a rare treat, but we get a wide selection every year. And we still get the one-off tours as well! (Not to forget the smaller shows, too: with the New York International Fringe Festival that occupies lower Manhattan for several weeks in the summer, we get to see productions of small companies from across the U.S. and around the world and the New York Musical Theatre Festival brings in musical plays from a wide variety of sources, too.)

My frequent theater friend, Diana, and I selected several performances in this year’s Lincoln Center Festival (5 July to 5 August in spaces all over the Lincoln Center neighborhood) but the event’s popularity foiled our complete plans and we could only book one play this season. (Diana and I both had some scheduling conflicts that reduced our choices as well.) So on Thursday evening, 12 July, we met at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, just south and west of Lincoln Center’s campus, to see one of the three plays in DruidMurphy, a triplet of performances from the Druid Theatre Company of Galway. The three plays, Conversations on a Homecoming (1985), A Whistle in the Dark (1961), and Famine (1968), all by Tom Murphy, weren't written together (director Garry Hynes doesn’t want them to be called a trilogy), but they are linked by the theme of Irish emigration. The company calls DruidMurphy “a story both of those who went and those who were left behind” and the three plays cover a span of years from the 1840s to the 1970s.

The Druid Theatre Company, the first Irish professional theater based outside Dublin, was founded in Galway in 1975 by Garry Hynes, Mick Lally, and Marie Mullen, graduates of the National University of Ireland, Galway. Hynes became the first artistic director, until 1991 and then again from 1995; she’s also the stage director of DruidMurphy. The troupe’s home base is a once-abandoned, derelict part of the city where Druid presents work at its own theatre on Druid Lane as well as touring extensively around Ireland and the globe. (DruidMurphy, which previously appeared in London in June, returns to Ireland for several tour stops until it recrosses the Atlantic for performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington in October.) In 2009, for instance, Druid toured to Australia, Canada, the U.K., and the U.S. Among the playwrights whose works Druid has presented are Enda Walsh (The New Electric Ballroom; Penelope), Martin McDonagh (The Cripple of Inishmaan; The Beauty Queen of Leenane), and Eugene O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey into Night). The theater has a playwriting program intended to promote new plays, but they are also dedicated to “reinvigorating” the classics. DruidSynge, composed of six plays by late-19th- and early-20th-century dramatist John Millington Synge, was presented at Lincoln Center in 2006, for instance, and the company staged Sean O'Casey's The Silver Tassie at Lincoln Center last summer. The concept for DruidMurphy, which has a cast of 16 and runs about 9½ hours if you see it in a one-day marathon, began in 2009 and gestated in the mind of Garry Hynes for three years. It débuted at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway on 23 May 2012 and had its London première at the Hampstead Theatre on 23 June as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The Lincoln Center performances are the collection’s U.S. première.

Thomas Bernard Murphy, the youngest of ten children, was born in 1935 in Tuam, a town of fewer than 3,000 people in County Galway. He wrote for the local amateur drama society while working as an apprentice at the town’s sugar refinery. A Whistle in the Dark, the playwright’s first full-length work, was produced in London in 1961 when the famed Abbey Theatre of Dublin rejected it, declaring, according to the New York Times, that “no characters such as these exist.” Following Whistle, Murphy moved to London and wrote for TV and the movies. After a handful of other plays, including Famine, Murphy returned to Ireland in 1970. His work, which totals more than two dozen plays, was often compared to the Angry Young Men of British theater—John Osborne and Edward Bond—but when John Lahr was at the Village Voice (he’s now at the New Yorker), the reviewer observed the similarities to a different British writer: Harold Pinter. (Current Voice writer Alexis Soloski made this comparison as well in her review of DruidMurphy, while a couple of other reviewers have invoked African-American playwright August Wilson.) But the writer’s style is varied: some of his plays are naturalistic, some surreal, some lyrical, and some combine aspects of several styles. Murphy, however, has the reputation of being, as one Irish novelist phrased it, “the writer whom other Irish writers most admire.” Nonetheless, compared to McDonagh, Conor McPherson, Synge, Samuel Beckett, and Brian Friel, it seems the 77-year-old playwright is seldom produced in the U.S.

Diana and I chose to see Famine, the last (and longest) of the three performances but the one set earliest. First staged at Dublin's Peacock Theatre in 1968, the play is set in western Ireland’s County Mayo in 1846 during the worst period in the history of Ireland. In the village of Glanconnor, the second crop of potatoes has failed and the tenant farmers now face the prospect of starvation. The British government (all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom then; the Irish Free State wasn’t established in the south until 1922) refuses to aid the farmers, denying even that there is a famine, and the English and Anglo-Irish landowners promise help only to tenants who agree to emigrate to Canada. Family head and village elder John Connor, for whose family the town’s named, is in the midst of widespread starvation and poverty and he must do “what’s right” for his neighbors, his family, God, and, most importantly, himself. In 12 continuously horrendous scenes, Murphy depicts the Irish potato famine as the incident that triggered a massive exodus—encouraged and abetted by the English and Anglo-Irish landholders who wanted to reassert control of their land from the tenant farmers and use it to graze lower-maintenance sheep—that depleted the Irish population by nearly two million people. (The action of Ireland’s overlords also had the benefit of eliminating a large number of troublesome Irish Catholics, an outcome greatly desired by the Protestant English and Anglo-Irish.) Connor must choose, both for himself and his fellow villagers who will follow his lead, whether to stay on their farms, facing almost certain starvation and death, the annihilation of their families and the very traces of their presence on Earth, or to flee in the “coffin ships” to an unknown fate in a strange land thousands of miles away, not even knowing if they’ll be welcome much less provided for. As in all of Murphy’s works, as I understand his thematic focus from other reports, Famine explores the notion of “home”—what it is, what it means, where it takes you. Does it even exist?

While violence is at the core of most of Murphy’s plays, the brutality in Famine is largely of the “spiritual plane,” as a local Tuam writer put it: “it is the violence done to a people, and by extension to a national psyche, by repression, hunger, eviction and starvation.” (There are, nonetheless, several intense instances of the ordinary kind of violence as well, including one that’s as horrendous as any I’ve ever seen on stage.) “While I was researching ‘Famine,’” recalls Murphy, “I asked myself, ‘Am I a student of famine or a victim of famine?’ I finally decided that I was a victim, and it was from that viewpoint that I wrote it.” Our choice turned out to have been the bleakest of the three-play repertory.

DruidMurphy was presented at the Lincoln Center Festival from 5 to 14 July, with each play being offered separately on successive evenings and the then the cycle was repeated. (There were also two dates on which spectators could see all three plays in one marathon viewing, starting at 1 p.m. and ending, after a half-hour intermission and an hour-and-a-half dinner break, at 10:20.) Of the other two plays in the series Hynes assembled for DruidMurphy, Conversations on a Homecoming, set in the mid-1970s, recounts a 10-year reunion of old friends, now all disillusioned and bitter, in a County Galway pub, celebrating the sudden return of a would-be actor from a failed attempt to make it in New York. Set in 1960, A Whistle in the Dark, written when Murphy was only 25, is about an Irish emigrant and his non-Irish wife living in Coventry, England, whose home is invaded by his brutal and sadistic father and brothers. The family draws the young man back into its thuggish ways with violent results. (Murphy’s said he revisited two of the plays, Conversations and Whistle, and made some changes for the Druid presentation. He doesn’t seem to have reworked Famine, though I can’t be certain.)

It looks like Diana and I didn’t choose well. By all accounts, the other two plays are more accessible and because the acting was universally lovely and sensitive, another example might have been a better experience. (Not knowing Murphy’s work or, really, the work of Druid, we didn’t want to commit to three plays.) “Bleak” was the word most reviews and descriptions of Famine used and it’s right on. The other descriptor should have been “unrelentingly” because the grimness never lets up. The first scene is a wake for a daughter of John Connor who'd clearly died from the effects of the famine (a million Irish died from it or from illnesses caused by it), and the play only gets more desolate. Only one scene of the 12 has a different tone—not what you’d call happy, by any means, but at least it attacks the issue from a different angle; the other 11 are of a single oppressive note. Though the plot advances slightly over the two hours and 50 minutes of playing time—the final act toward which the story leads is the lose-lose decision of Connor whether to emigrate or not—every other scene is the same. As this was only Murphy’s second full-length play, I wonder if he was trying to communicate the unrelenting bleakness of the historical event, its devastating effect on the Irish people, and tried to put that directly on stage without seeing that there’s a disconnect between the reality of the history and the demands of theatre. Whatever the reason, Famine wore on me to the extent that I couldn’t get into it for more than a few minutes at a time—I kept dropping out until I forced myself to pay attention again—and I couldn’t get a feeling of empathy or even sympathy for the characters even though it was obvious that they were suffering prodigiously. Some reports, such as the New York Times’s Charles Isherwood’s review, suggested that the remoteness of the time makes the play less accessible than the other two, though we manage to get into many other plays set in distant times and places. I, however, blame my problem entirely on what the New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli described as the play’s “uncompromisingly grim” quality, and it ended up being exceedingly enervating.

Not only were the tone and theme of each scene (except that one at the end of the first act, “The Relief Committee”) the same, but the lighting was a dim, twilight level all the way through the production. As the audience was still taking their seats before the play, two figures came on stage—there was no curtain—at about five minutes before the wake scene started. A very tall man (whom I later decided was Brian Doherty, who portrays Connor and towers over the rest of the cast) turned and left a small, white-haired old woman (probably Marie Mullen, who plays Connor’s mother, Sinéad) to stand silently and motionlessly in the center of the set. This occurred in what I thought was the pre-set, but the lights, as designed by Chris Davey, never got brighter outside “The Relief Committee”: it was always gloomy and shadowy. The sun, it seems, never shone on Glanconnor, Ireland, in 1846.

Francis O’Connor’s setting, a unified concept with elements of suggested Realism (the rows of potato plants growing along the apron of the Lynch’s proscenium stage, a hill of barren dirt rising in the up-stage left corner of the set), was mostly Expressionistic, especially as aided by Davey’s shadowy lighting. A patchwork wall of corrugated metal panels formed the rear of the set, with a rectangular doorway cut into it at stage right. Just below the door in the corrugated wall, a tall piece of grey wall stood, a sort of conventional blind that marked a change of location: when characters exited the downstage area to go someplace more distant but represented on another part of the stage, going around the free-standing panel symbolized that they’d covered some ground. While the acting was all naturalistic, the design was a fusion—except Joan O’Clery’s costumes, which were entirely naturalist, though with what I’d call an edge. The tenant farmers of Glanconnor village were dressed in tatters that barely hung on their bodies, especially the women and children (one reviewer described them as “looking like . . . zombies”) while the Relief Committee—all English or Anglo-Irish: a justice of the peace, a priest, a landowning army captain, a merchant, and a landlord—wore the spiffiest, cleanest, most pristine attire imaginable. While the farmers wore rags not possible outside of a Dickens tale, the toffs who were charged with their rescue had on clothes not only freshly dry-cleaned, but just out of the box! (This was the scene that was also brightly lit and, though the characters are hardly admirable, they were played with high energy and self-confidence.)

The physical production wasn’t the only aspect of Famine that demonstrated this mix of Naturalism and Expressionism. For the most part—all the dialogue scenes—the actors behaved naturalistically, even with Murphy’s frequently lyrical use of Irish-accented lines. (That accent was “thick as Guinness,” wrote Joe Dziemianowicz in the Daily News—on top of the rural colloquialisms. If the company modified the dialect for American ears, I couldn’t tell. The Relief Committee, including the Irish characters, all spoke with upper-class English accents.) Hynes incorporated, however, numerous stylized actions within the naturalistic behavior, such as bodies, presumably of the starved peasants, sliding slowly out of the wings at the end of “The Relief Committee,” or Connor’s little son, Donaill (Joseph Ward), crawling under the conference table at the start of that scene and sitting there wordlessly throughout as an indictment of the ineffectual and selfish actions of the officials. (I don’t know if these bits are indicated in Murphy’s script or were the invention of the director. The same, of course, is true of the set design.) The play, in fact, began with a stylized scene as part of the wake: a village woman (Treasa Ní Mhiolláin) started the play proper (after that silent preamble) by keening as each of the mourners arrived and exchanged a ritualized greeting with those already assembled. This occurred as a more naturalistic scene took place slightly down stage in what appeared to be a different location. Though I don’t know if all this stylistic variation is part of Murphy’s script or had been developed in the performance text by Hynes, the disparate aspects only rarely seemed to clash.

Druid’s acting company is truly remarkable. As hard as I found it to keep engaged in the play, I can’t fault the stage work of the cast. I’d really like to see this company in a different play such as one of the Synges in the 2006 series or last year’s O’Casey. It’s impossible to select one or two performances to praise, not only because the cast worked as a magnificent ensemble, building an acting environment to which they all contributed, but simply because they were all so equally accomplished that I wouldn’t be able to distinguish among them. I will spotlight one performance, though, but only because the actor had to adopt a physical impediment that must have been exceedingly hard. Aaron Monaghan as Mickeleen O’Leary, a crippled villager, bustled about the uneven terrain in what looked like mismatched forearm crutches as if he were a four-legged spider. (I kept getting the image of the Gollum from the Lord of the Rings films.) The actor’s physical work was astonishing—and amazingly compelling—but it never diminished Monaghan’s inner characterization, which was as total and constant as those of his castmates. Even though many of the cast took on multiple roles, they all established strong, consistent, and believable characters that never descended into stereotype or caricature. If it weren’t for the play’s unrelieved desolation, I’d never have been able to take my eyes off this ensemble, watching as they wove the cloth of this little community. Long-time readers of ROT will remember that this kind of acting thoroughly thrills me, as I explained in “Ensembles” (9 August 2010 on the blog).

The press was mostly complimentary in the same vein that I’ve been: that Druid’s acting was superb and that the achievement of bringing Murphy to the attention of New York audiences in such a high-profile way is laudatory. Most reviewers praised the whole series, reserving their greatest approval for the first two plays that I didn’t see and finding difficulties with Famine. For instance, Matt Windman wrote in AM New York that “‘DruidMurphy’ makes for an exceptional theatrical experience that is captivating despite offering endless hours of gloom and doom” but Soloski of the Voice advised that Famine, “with the political overwhelming the personal in many of the scenes,” is the “most complex, and yet least compelling offering in the cycle.” In Variety, Steven Suskin found that “Hynes, her designers and a strong cast of Irish actors makes the marathons exceptional viewing” and praised Famine as “compelling” and “evocative,” but warned that “non-Irish/English patrons at the marathons might have trouble keeping focused.” In Newsday, Linda Winer effused of dramatist Tom Murphy, “It is rare and a bit overwhelming to discover the existence of an artist with a mature and highly individual body of work.” Still, she called Famine “grueling,” but said as the last of the three plays, which Winer saw in the 9½-hour marathon, she found “the unflinching political and natural tragedy reverberates throughout the characters and uneasy national identities of the previous works.” Jason Fitzgerald of Back Stage, calling Famine “a long expressionist montage,” concluded that even though the author “connects the dots from emotional truth to historical and political experience,” it was “memorable but tiring, and Hynes' production can't hide its preciousness.”

In Time Out New York, David Cote described the whole repertory as “devastatingly good” (as well as “hugely ambitious”), but specified that the “semi-Brechtian” Famine was “a difficult sit.” Vincentelli of the Post described DruidMurphy as “easier to admire than to love” and characterized Famine as “nearly three hours of horror.” Dziemianowicz of the News designated “the superbly acted and staged” series as “all bruising works—some more powerfully than others” and agreed that Famine was “grim.” The New Yorker’s Scott Brown, dubbing the series “harrowing works,” noted that Famine was of a “vastly ambitious scale” compared to the other plays and warned that it was “for many reasons, the hardest to watch.” In the Times, Isherwood affirmed that “the plays easily transcend their surface nature as commentary on people of specific times and places” but warned that “‘Famine’ feels diffuse almost to the point of tedium” because, he suggested, “[i]t is easier to enter into the 20th-century worlds of the other plays than it is to engage with the rural Ireland of the 1840s.” The play “has its own rewards,” Isherwood declared, however, and it “never devolves into a dull history lesson or a preachy tract.”

Finally, because of the unique nature and provenance of this presentation, I thought it would be edifying and interesting to see what a local Irish paper thought of DruidMurphy, on the assumption—probably valid, as I think you’ll agree—that its reviewer might have a special sense of this writer and this troupe. (There are two well-known Irish weeklies in New York City, but the Irish Echo hadn’t run a review at the time I wrote this report.) Irish Voice review-writer Cahir O'Doherty, who admitted that “Druid Murphy is not just a highlight of my theater-going year; it’s been the highlight of my theatre-going life,” began his notice with a question:

Did you ever ask yourself how did every Irish town ended up [sic] with at least twenty public houses? Did you ever wonder how the rural landscape from Malin Head to Mizen Head came to be filled with deserted cottages, abandoned workhouses, burial plots, and broken down factories with tiny stone windows that only a crow could squeeze through?

This, O’Doherty explained, is what playwright Murphy has been contemplating over the span of his career: “what the rest of us have blithely overlooked, transfixed by the little details of our own lives.” The arts editor went on to say that the repertory was an “extraordinary mini-retrospective.” “I have never witnessed a more lucid theatrical exploration of the Irish experience on any stage,” O’Doherty pronounced. Famine, he asserted, was “the most shattering work” of the three “intensely provocative productions” and summed up his estimation of DruidMurphy as “the most defining statement on the legacy of the great hunger and its cultural and historical echoes that it has ever been my privilege to witness.”

1 comment:

  1. Thomas Bernard Patrick Murphy, born in Tuam, Ireland, in 1935, died of heart failure in Dublin on 15 May 2018 at the age of 83. The New York Times characterized him as "an influential Irish playwright known for dark tales told with a rustic musicality."