all the world's a play

On Monday night I attended the premier of The Walworth Farce by Irish playwright Edna Walsh. It’s a Druid Theatre production, directed by Mikel Murfi, and starring Syan Blake, Denis Conway, Garrett Lombard and Aaron Monaghan. The play reminds me of a quote by Shakespeare from his excellent comedy, As you Like It:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,”

I’ll note upfront that I don’t attend the theatre regularly, although it is an art form that I enjoy. There is much to like about The Walworth Farce, however the current production never comes together completely for me. Perhaps as the play continues its run–next in Cork and then in Dublin–some of the bumps might get ironed out.

The premise is great: Dinny, an ex-pat Irishman living in London, has holed up in a London flat with his two sons Sean and Blake. Every day they re-enact a marvellous and convoluted farcical story that Dinny has concocted to explain why they left Ireland and moved to London. Their lives are consumed with playing out numerous parts that are designed to keep the boys closeted in the tiny apartment and scared to leave. Only Sean is allowed out–every day to do the shopping so he can get the materials necessary for their daily production.

The boys display signs of rebellion at their father’s playacting, especially since Sean’s interactions with the outside world lead him to understand that not all is as his father would like them to believe. On the fateful day of the play, Sean, benignly shocked at social interaction with Hayley, a girl at the checkout in Tescos supermarket, takes the wrong shopping bag away with him by mistake. This interrupts and confuses the farce for that day, and more importantly it leads to the arrival of Hayley on their doorstep; she brings the correct bag as a gesture of goodwill and friendship. Hayley is pulled into their dark, and often dangerous, world of illusion and control, and her presence upsets the already fragile balance in the household–it does not end well.

The set design by Sabine Dargent is fantastic: the seedy, introverted world of the Irishman living abroad is brought to life in the shabby furniture and wilting décor.

This play places considerable stress upon the actors. Not only do they play their “real” characters, but they also have act out the multiple personas of the farce. In this regard the actors did a consummate job. The farce, and its intersections with the real world, are very complicated and wildly imaginative, and demand incredible focus and skill by the actors.

Yet, one of my biggest problems with the play is that I felt everything was pitched too high. There’s a lot of “screaming and roaring” in the farce, which is punctuated by tantrums by Dinny–the volatile and controlling father–and occasionally the youngest, son, Blake. This means that sometimes the transitions between the farce and real life are not telegraphed very well, and when a character really gets violent it is just much louder acting. Personally, I think the whole play could be played at a lower pitch, and then the major flashpoints would really stand out. It meant that I wasn’t ever very shocked by Dinny’s outbursts.

Also, I have a couple of problems with the credibility of the story. Now, I fully understand that there is a surreal aspect to the farce, and I’m totally fine with that. What I enjoyed most were the crazy antics in the farce and the wild storytelling. My issue is with the back story that emerges: the real story of why Dinny left his hometown of Cork, and how his sons came to London. Two characters relay it to us: Sean remembers the event as a five-year-old boy, and Dinny later confesses to the truth of the situation.

The truth, as it is presented, stretched my credibility beyond blind acceptance. Dinny’s wife Maureen is the absent presence in this play: she somehow allowed her husband to leave after a horrific event, and even more incredible, she later sent her children to her husband in London on the most spurious of reasons. Maureen does not inquire after her children even thought she knows where Dinny lives, and the police never investigate the Walworth Road apartment even though they would know its location for obvious reasons. Once these issues began to bug me I could no longer remain within the world of the play. Especially when I realised how easily it could be resolved with only a few lines of explanation or dissembling.

I understand that the play is trying to peel back the layers of truth and illusion, and to present a mixed up world in which these three men reside, but that’s no excuse for implausible actions that are presented as events within an orderly everyday world and not larks with the boys in the made-up farce.

While I quite liked the chirpy and talkative Hayley, it is a stretch to imagine that she would ever step into the apartment once she witnesses the strange men that reside there. I ignored it for the sake of the play, but really, I should not have to do that. Hayley plays the classic female victim character, and she functions mostly as fuel upon an already combustible situation.

The people I attended the play with were divided in their opinions: some loved it and thought it was terrific entertainment, and others were less enthusiastic. While I applaud Walsh’s guts to attempt such a complicated and intricate play, I think there are problems at the play’s core that need addressing. Luckily, I don’t think it will require much work to sort them out.