Tuesday 20 February 2018

David Blake Knox: Johnny's performance was beyond acting - so genuine and effortless

Johnny Murphy (right) as Estragon in ‘Waiting for Godot’. Photo: Marc O’Sullivan
Johnny Murphy (right) as Estragon in ‘Waiting for Godot’. Photo: Marc O’Sullivan

David Blake Knox

Johnny Murphy is best known to the public for his role as 'Joey the Lips' in the screen version of Roddy Doyle's 'The Commitments'.

But Johnny began his career on stage, and, for me, is best remembered for his extraordinary performance in The Gate's production of Samuel Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot'.

In 2008, this landmark production had been staged around the world with the same cast for the previous 20 years. But it had never toured in Ireland. Michael Colgan decided to mark the 20th anniversary by taking the production to every county on this island.

The plan was to perform the play for one night only at 40 separate venues. The scale of this tour was unprecedented. It involved thousands of kilometres of gruelling travel in a period of just six weeks. I decided to follow the tour and record a documentary film.

Johnny Murphy had recently been in hospital, and some doubt had been raised about his ability to take part. However, for Colgan and the other cast members, it was unthinkable to stage the play without him - and Johnny arrived on the first day of rehearsals as committed as ever.

I watched him play Estragon on many occasions. His performance was almost beyond acting, it seemed so genuine and effortless. And, of course, audiences loved him. Night after night, he turned their emotions from laughter to tears, and back again.

As the tour progressed, concerns arose about Johnny's health. However, he never missed a show. Once the curtain rose, Johnny became Estragon. He never fluffed a line, or missed a cue.

The last night of the tour was in Enniskillen. It was an emotional occasion for everyone, particularly three actors - Barry McGovern, Alan Stanford and Stephen Brennan - who worked with Johnny for two decades.

I think we all knew it would be the last time he appeared on stage. And so it has proved. Some of his legacy is preserved on film - the rest lies in the memories of those who saw him act.

Irish Independent

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