Tuesday 14 August 2018

Reviews: Idlewild at Smock Alley Theatre, Two at Viking Theatre, Dublin

 

Niamh McGrath and Andrew Murray play an array of characters in Two. Photo: Jim Cartwright
Niamh McGrath and Andrew Murray play an array of characters in Two. Photo: Jim Cartwright

Emer O'Kelly

A gangland play prompts Emer O'Kelly to wonder about our theatrical priorities.

On the basis that complaints have been made comparatively recently that women playwrights who have been board members of the Abbey Theatre did not have their plays staged there, it is perhaps worth noting that veteran playwright Jimmy Murphy is a member of the Abbey's advisory council (and also a member of Aosdana). This is because his new play Idlewild, a fairly masterly reflection and examination of Irish gangland culture, is being staged by fringe company Glass Mask at the fringe venue of the Boys' School at Smock Alley in Dublin. But then, Murphy's not a girl, which may also be why he's not kicking up a row.

But the Abbey's loss is Glass Mask's (and audiences') gain. Idlewild is utterly gripping in its calm, tight menace and its portrayal of the twisted moral codes that have led to certain areas of Dublin being almost no-go areas for law-abiding citizens, who sometimes live in fear of their lives while they watch their sons and daughters fall victim to the pervasive availability of cheap, lethally life-destroying drugs and the ever-present threat of random gun violence. And of course, outside those communities, the middle classes party round the clock on the lines of cocaine so efficiently supplied by their local dealer. The difference is that when a "socialite" dies from a drug overdose, he or she becomes that doubtful entity, "a tragic celebrity", sanctified and lauded by their families and, unforgivably, by some journalists.

And behind it all are the almost sub-human perverts portrayed so vividly by Jimmy Murphy.

Two men meet in a hilltop cemetery overlooking Dublin. One says, "So this is what 30 million looks like." That's what his companion is worth, an international drug dealer hiding out in Spain from where he runs his business and orders the murderously brutal shootings which help him keep control of it all. Fourteen to date, including members of his own family and his "friend's" family.

They grew up together, began dealing together, loved each other unconditionally. Until. Until the third member of their youthful "harmless" crime gang went down in a bank raid. He lies buried at their feet. In the 15 years since, the other man has gone in a different direction: out of drugs, into the far "cleaner" trade of bank robbery. He too is worth many millions, striding out, as his erstwhile friend goads him, over the limbs of security men smashed with lump hammers, and the imprisoned families left with nervous breakdowns, some of them terminal. And along the way, they have systematically been wiping out each other's associates and families; now they have met to end it, one way or the other.

The value and vividness of Murphy's play lies in the fully three-dimensional characters he gives the two men, self-justifying, but still haunted, and still seeing other elements of society as the real culprits for what our cities have become. (Actually, if Idlewild has a weakness, it lies in the long explication of all of that, which smacks slightly of the pulpit.)

But it is a wonderful, important play, which to my mind should have been on the stage of the national theatre, in exactly the production and casting given to it by Glass Mask: with seminal, devastating performances from Rex Ryan and Ruairi Heading, and directed by the author in a set by Andy Murray.

*******

It's a big ask: two actors to play 14 different characters of widely differing ages and types in the space of a couple of hours. But the Loose Tea company does a pretty competent job in undertaking Jim Cartwright's Two at the Viking Theatre in Clontarf in Dublin.

The play, from 1989, has the audience in an on-stage bar, where the landlord and his wife are at private loggerheads when not fixing customer-friendly smiles on their faces to deal with the motley assortment of weird, wonderful, sad and unpleasant people who visit, drift, settle and otherwise populate the bar in the course of an evening.

Inevitably, some characterisations work better than others, in part because the author gives them more flesh to work with.

But it's as the two emotionally crippled bar tenders that Niamh McGrath and Andrew Murray shine best, chipping interminably at each other until the late-night moment when they must face the reality of a long-ago tragedy in their lives.

Some of the episodes don't quite cut it. But the "odd couple" of elderly movie fans fantasising about long-ago extras in equally long-ago star vehicles is great fun, and there's a spine-chilling reality in the terrified and downtrodden wife with the violent and controlling husband not averse to thumping her in public.

The monologue pieces also work well, with Murray as a quietly civilised loner whose life with his dead wife continues in his head, and McGrath as a self-serving mistress intent on confronting her lover and his wife so that the man may compare the two women in the not-so-cold light of pub company.

It's undemanding, pleasant stuff, competently directed by Ellen Friedrichs and designed by Liam O'Neill.

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