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Review: Druidmurphy, Hampstead Theatre, London

Launching in London last weekend, Druid Theatre are celebrating the work of Tom Murphy with a major international tour of three of his plays, Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark and Famine, that arrives back in Ireland in July. They can be viewed either individually or as an immersive cycle day. And this playathon, if you will, is dauntlessly and quite magnificently led by director Garry Hynes.

Opening with ‘Conversations on a Homecoming’, we are in an Irish country bar in the seventies. JFK looks down from the wall, pints flow and a gathering of locals awaits the returned emigrant, nervous with anticipated envy for all that he might have achieved. But Michael walks back in and is clearly not the newly made star. Though they are genuinely happy to see each other, there is still boasting, bickering, belittling, with the resentful truth sneaking out in between the jibes and the jokes. They ravage each other and then shake hands.

We move to a 1960s house in Coventry, the home of Irish emigrant Michael and his English wife, a home that is under invasion from Michael’s four brothers and his dictatorial father Dada, a man who has fatally scarred them all. ‘A Whistle In The Dark’ is all about family pride and how everything should be sacrificed to maintain it, any initial faint flickerings of hope quickly extinguished. And it is one of the most bristling, bruising, battering pieces of theatre you will have the privilege to experience. It has been revisited by Murphy for this new outing and it is hard to imagine it could be improved from this shattering production.

The famine with all its tangled history is an almost impossible subject for theatre, but Murphy makes the most of that 'almost'. ‘Famine’ is still the most challenging, difficult, and understandably the least produced, but Druid has found its core to create something of tragic beauty and integrity in this human descent into misery. History is necessarily compressed, simplified and it is presented in a series of short vignettes, punctuated by delicately brutal tableaux.

There is not one theme that obviously links these three plays other than their utter Irishness, the merciless portrait of the Irish male and his derogatory treatment of the Irish woman. There is also a shared theme of the decay wreaked by poverty, the emotional disintegration it produces, the callous class divides. And at the heart of it is the inevitability of man’s self-destruction.

Designer Francis O’Connor has also created a visual motif with the colour blue. There are a blue coat and a door shared by the first two plays and then a ragged cardigan hanging on the back of a door in the ravaged Famine. And O’Connor’s backdrop frames them all, corrugated iron panels slanted to become the soil meeting the sky, a most Irish sky of sideways rain and a patchwork landscape of boggy fields.

Out of a troupe of 17, five of the actors are in all three plays, an impossibly demanding feat that they carry off so extraordinarily it as if they are freshly stepping out for the first time with each play, each role so clearly defined from its predecessor. And, though this is very much an ensemble creation, there are performances of particularly devastating brilliance from Aaron Monaghan and Marty Rea.

Under Hynes’ masterful direction, this is a remarkable theatrical achievement, in scope, vision and execution. Nine and a half hours after the curtain first rises, we are finally allowed to applaud this extraordinary cast, to give them the prolonged standing ovation they have so earned. It is a privilege to watch theatre of such indelible quality.