Thursday 22 March 2018

Chilling dystopias in town and country

Emer O'Kelly finds enduring, frightening, relevance in an early Pinter work

Mikel Murfi and Tadhg Murphy in Enda Walsh’s ‘Ballyturk’ at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Photo: Patrick Redmond
Mikel Murfi and Tadhg Murphy in Enda Walsh’s ‘Ballyturk’ at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Photo: Patrick Redmond

It was first performed in 1960 when its author was 30 years old. He died eight years ago. And The Dumb Waiter is a searing testament to how badly we need Harold Pinter back with us, writing reminders of how we fail ourselves and our humanity.

Ostensibly, The Dumb Waiter is about two hitmen waiting in a basement for their target to arrive.

Both are cranky, the "junior" through edginess, the senior man almost bored as he laconically reads out bits from a newspaper.

They're Cockneys; but in 2017, it's not difficult to imagine them as the hitmen who now roam our own streets, presumably as indifferent to the lives they are ordered to terminate as are Pinter's Ben and Gus.

All in a day's work; the Man has ordered it. That's what you do. You wait with your bag of snacks that are going off by the second: even the milk is turning sour. There's always somebody or something up the line controlling things for their own, probably impenetrable reasons.

That was Pinter's credo, and he used the gimlet of his genius to try to make us aware of it. Defending liberalism was our only hope, he kept telling us; it was, and is his legacy.

There's no window in the room in The Dumb Waiter, just a... dumb waiter which clunks up and down from time to time with mysterious notes demanding unavailable food from an unavailable menu. And it's hilarious; until a sudden sound disturbs Gus and Ben, and their snub-nosed guns take over our consciousness.

No longer lugubriously and crankily cheerful, their purpose becomes concentrated on the task in hand. Who is their intended victim? Gus goes for a drink of water to the nearby scullery. And then we find out... It's a chilling manifestation of blind powerlessness.

The Dumb Waiter is being given a short production run at the Gate as part of Michael Colgan's farewell programme, and the production is as flawless as could be hoped for under Joe Dowling's meticulous direction.

Dowling's forte (well, one of them) is fidelity to an author's intentions, and this is a production that one suspects would have satisfied even the hyper-critical Pinter himself.

And the playing by Lorcan Cranitch as the dogged Ben and Garret Lombard as the pedantically inquiring Gus are both superb.

The Dumb Waiter is a play for our time, and it's time we listened to its message.


IS inter-dependent simplicity a bulwark of sanity against an insane world? Or the reverse?

Enda Walsh continually interrogates the conundrum, and although he never manages to come to a conclusion, his examination is never boring. The one thing that is a given in his work is that loneliness is destined to be the human condition, whether or not we realise it.

In Ballyturk, the Landmark/GIAF production from two years ago revived at the Abbey with Olwen Fouere and Tadhg Murphy respectively taking over the roles originally played by Stephen Rea and Cillian Murphy, the protagonists live outside Ballyturk, a town that may just be in their minds.

They invent its citizens from pictures they have drawn and pinned to the walls, and they play out conversations between them, whether observed in reality or invented by themselves. It is never clear.

What does exist (or does it?) is the voices behind the walls, having unimaginatively pedantic conversations about trivia as the two men try to drive them away with manic games with children's toys. Until.

Until the apocalyptic arrival of a figure obsessed with the actions of her left hand. She collects things, she tells them; and she has come to collect one of them. They can decide which. In the meantime, she engages in whimsical conversation with the voices.

Rea played the role of this Death/Satanic figure with a combination of amusement and boredom. Fouere, dressed in chic business fashion which would not be out of place on the Boulevard St Germain, is more tired than bored, almost anxious despite her control of the situation. She's marvellous to watch, as was her predecessor.

Tadhg Murphy is also extraordinarily different in performance than was Cillian Murphy: he is more innocently wide-eyed and childlike, and his gangling form, as athletic as Murphy's, seems to make him more vulnerable as the time for decision approaches.

And when the moment arrives, and he must leave with the collector to find Ballyturk, we are not sure whether that will be the real world or oblivion, or whether his sorrowing long-time companion (Mikel Murfi) will be the one to find salvation.

We all have a Ballyturk, Walsh (who also directs) seems to be saying.

But whether it's peace or turmoil is beyond our control.

Sunday Independent

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