Sunday 23 October 2016

Faultless revival of a Murphy masterpiece

Emer O’Kelly

Published 01/06/2015 | 02:30

The Gigli Concert
The Gigli Concert
The Gigli Concert

How do you save a soul? That's the question at the heart of Tom Murphy's The Gigli Concert as JPW King, quack therapy behaviourist abandoned by his "Dynamatology" HQ in England, and the anonymous Irishman drowning in the emptiness of his success as a builder of tacky "homes" cling to each other in the uncertain surroundings of the grubby office where the alcoholic King is camped out.

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The Irishman has memories of childhood innocence as a promising choirboy (later destroyed under King's bumblingly successful analysis) and dimly perceives music as his salvation. Now he wants to learn to sing like the great tenor Beniamino Gigli.

King clings to repetitive memories of an unrealised love affair, his eyes tragically raised too far above the reality of what is offered by the married Mona, happy to share his bed in search of comfort in her own shadowy, unfulfilled life.

They may not be in hell, but they are well on their way. And over the course of some of the Irishman's "sessions" with JP, destructively combative for both of them, they reach its gates, only the soaring voice of the great tenor barring their passage like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress.

In David Grindley's revival production at the Gate to mark Tom Murphy's 80th birthday, there is a stringent clarity of vision that makes the play seem to begin like a stereotypical bud. The Irishman is larger than life, a typically crass bombast, with King, despite his "reduced circumstances", still trailing clouds of middle-class English glory and wry humour. But as they flower, the edges blur into the damaged beauty of a wind-beaten exotic bloom in all its rare subtleties. And we see the terrible, yearning need at the heart of both men.

Grindley has done an extraordinary job of balancing the overwhelming, universal theme that is the mark of Murphy's work, and its unapologetic intellectualism, with the dark malicious humour of two warring personalities. It helps, of course, that he has two of Ireland's finest actors at his disposal in Denis Conway and Declan Conlon. Both are magnificent, Conway particularly so in his unashamedly operatic approach to the Irishman, his stance posturing and open-chested, his delivery frequently trembling on a musical progression. Conlon in comparison, gives a performance in the descant, a counterfoil to Conway's aria, and the combination is unbeatable.

Dawn Bradfield as the sexually practical but emotionally distraught Mona seems, perhaps deliberately, to be detached from the reality of King's despair, and so her tragedy, even when revealed, seems to drift outside the closed world on stage.

Perhaps it is because she is the character untouched by the soaring music; certainly, as the play ends, it is the voice of Beniamino Gigli, that has drawn both men back from the gates of hell. Their souls may not be saved, but there is still a chance. In Murphy's book, that's enough to be grateful for.

Jonathan Fensom has designed this faultless production of one of the 20th Century's greatest Irish plays, and it is lit by Sinead McKenna with sound by Gregory Clarke.

Sunday Independent

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