Medicine Black Box, Galway
The concept of taking refuge in insanity to protect yourself from the lunacy of the world around you has long fascinated writers. The concept has less frequently been taken to the next nightmare stage: insanity turning its vicious claws back on its victim, perhaps because it’s more difficult to portray credibly, particularly on the stage.
Enda Walsh’s plays have always given us people on the edge, sometimes malevolently, more often pathetically, but always souls in various kinds of torment. Medicine, his latest work for Landmark and the Galway International Arts Festival (GIAF) had its premiere at Edinburgh, and will run until next Saturday at the Black Box as part of GIAF. Then it will transfer to St Ann’s Warehouse in New York.
It opens by ticking various Walsh boxes: a chaotic institutional space, filled with the detritus of false and forced gaiety (a banner shouting “Congratulations” dominates the scene). And of course there’s a drum kit (there’s always music in Walsh’s background). Two booths, one large and sinister, another small and insignificant. And this is where gentle John Kane will take his medicine. It’s a mental institution and John doesn’t know how long he’s been there; the invisible interviewer keeps asking him, but he can never remember.
Not surprising really. He has already written his “script” for his annual review, presumably setting out his history, and hopefully his rational pleas to be allowed into the beautiful outside world. But John Kane is “different”. He knows that, and thinks that it’s probably why he was sent to the institution in the first place. His parents and another man were responsible, and John presumes they knew best. Because people don’t like different people.
Medicine is a horror story. Couched in insanely wild comedy, it portrays a terrifyingly believable Walsh view of society: geared deliberately to isolate the kind and gentle, particularly when they tell the simple truth.
So each year, a couple of unsuccessful ham actors and a musician are employed to assist at John’s review: to take him through his script and drive him further into the isolation of his kind lonely soul. In all the years, Walsh suggests, the unseen interviewer has never reached the end of John’s carefully prepared script.
This year, one of the actors is familiar with the scenario — it’s not her first time. Determined to finish as quickly as possible, in addition to obeying the instructions to disorient and terrify John, she is dressed in a giant lobster costume. She’s called Mary, and she has a gig when she leaves, to play a lobster at a children’s party. The other actor, also Mary, is a newbie and despite her disappointments in life, she hasn’t yet lost her humanity. The drummer is so uninterested he leaves intermittently.
In John’s increasingly confused mind, we hear the voices from his childhood and young adulthood — the parents who neglected him shamefully; the mother who fancied herself as a femme fatale; the little school friends who turned against him because their parents despised his. And when all the normal urges of puberty emerged, they too were used against him.
Shamed and publicly scorned for his timid love for a local girl, he is tormented and “read from the pulpit”.
And to add to the horror, the pattern repeats itself in the institution when he forms a tentative friendship with another inmate, only to see her being beaten up in her room by a vigilant “official”. The official is good at his job; he has often “punished” John as well. All of this is played out through extraordinary performances from Clare Barrett and Aoife Duffin as the Marys, with Seán Carpio on drums.
It is a nightmare that leaves one swallowing the laughter as horrified nausea takes over, a combination of sentiments with the addition of tears, that is scored into the audience by a superlatively underplayed John from Domhnall Gleeson.
Walsh directs (as usual) and on this occasion, it has to be admitted, the danger of being too close to his work does show. It is difficult to follow the frenetic action at times, which is a pity because many points are being made about our attitude towards ”difference”. Overall, the question is: will John ever find peace? Three guesses.
The drum score is by Teho Teardo, and the set is designed by Jamie Vartan with lighting by Adam Silverman and sound by Helen Atkinson. The costumes are by Joan O’Clery.
It’s a worthy highlight for the return of GIAF.