Saturday 24 March 2018

Stage: The masterpiece that has found its true time

Revival: A scene from Tom Murphy's The Gigli Concert, which has opened at The Gate
Revival: A scene from Tom Murphy's The Gigli Concert, which has opened at The Gate

Maggie Armstrong

Playwrights often leave drama to the plays. Not Tom Murphy. In his voluminous career he has put in one hell of a show. Now, at the age of 80, he finally makes it to The Gate Theatre with a revival of his 1983 masterpiece The Gigli Concert.

It's difficult to talk about Tom Murphy and The Gate without mentioning 'the incident'. At Colm Toibin's 50th birthday party a decade ago, Murphy emptied his supper on The Gate director Michael Colgan's head. Colgan had called him a "provincial playwright". Murphy had called him "the keeper of a museum on Parnell Square".

Born in 1935 in Tuam, Murphy has spoken about the "outrage" he felt growing up against the class system and the church. His father was a carpenter, and his family of 10 brothers and sisters was "decimated" by emigration. This outrage shot through his first plays.

A Whistle in the Dark, which he wrote between "clenched jaws" aged 24, was, the London critic Kenneth Tynan felt, "arguably the most uninhibited display of brutality London theatre has ever witnessed". Murphy was, Tynan shivered, "the kind of playwright you wouldn't like to meet in a dark theatre".

Murphy's wife, the actor Jane Brennan, fell in love with him for this. "He was mad, bad and dangerous to know. Of course that's irresistible, isn't it?" she once said.

And there was the time, after the opening of The Gigli Concert at the Dublin Theatre Festival in September 1983, when he railed against the "condescending and insulting" reviews of a play that took him two years to write and the critics just 20 minutes to size up.

The Gigli Concert was Murphy's comeback play. Not yet 50 and wearing sideburns, he had kept a low profile since his 1975 The Sanctuary Lamp, produced at The Abbey had shocked some people with its anti-clerical polemics.

During his time away from writing, he was listening to records of tenors, feeling "jealous" of what these artists could do.

And so he wrote a play, set in a seedy Dublin office, about JPW King, a "dynamatologist" (a made-up religion similar to scientology), and the mysterious Irish Man, a property developer who wants to sing like the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. This character is a man whose life has no meaning, who longs to feel something.

In that first run, Tom Hickey and Godfrey Quigley put in famous performances as JPW and The Irish Man; Kate Flynn was rather overlooked as Mona, the mistress. But the problem was, the curtain came down at 11.35pm, leaving the play at an unheard of three hours and 35 minutes, and people missed the bus home.

In this newspaper, Des Rushe scoffed at "an opus of tremendous power in spots, and of uncharacteristic banality in others".

The overwriting came across as overindulgence, he wrote: "Trimmed and tailored and with an hour chopped off, The Gigli Concert could be magnificent."

Critics should never offer advice. In January 1984, The Abbey did a revival of the play with a new start time, 7.30pm, so patrons could catch the last bus. This time it sparked rhapsodic write-ups. People knew it was a piece of genius, Murphy one of Ireland's visionaries. He revealed himself to be a talented tenor, singing ballads after the show. Through a play about a man finding his voice, he had rediscovered his own.

Singing, The Irish Man pines at one point, is "the only possible way to tell people who you are". Murphy echoed this in an Irish Press interview, saying that "singing is the expression of who you are. Words are troublesome".

There were no songs at the recent opening night in The Gate, and no trace of outrage. Murphy sat in Row D, right in front of his old foe Colgan. After the play he stayed in the hospitality suite, and friends and admirers tiptoed in to greet him.

What is clear from this production is that Murphy was a playwright before his time. In 2015, The Gigli Concert is even better understood than in 1983. The Irish Man is a gangster property developer in mid-life crisis. JPW King fits right in with Dublin's malingering hipster scene. He could be king of the hipsters from the opening scene where he sits scraping jam out of a jar - it sets the tone for his fad vegetarianism, pseudo-spiritual beliefs, fellatio on the pull-out sofa, vodka on his desk.

At his advanced state of doing nothing, he accepts that creativity is the only way forward when his final air-guitar moment arrives, his Gigli concert. If you like music, don't miss it.

Tom Murphy is in conversation with Vincent Woods, Fintan O'Toole and Nicholas Grene on Wednesday June 10 at 6.30pm in The Gate Lab.

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