The Irish playwright Brendan Behan once noted that while everyone else has a nationality, the Irish have a psychosis. Of course, if you delve deeply enough into any culture, the level of dysfunction reveals itself quite readily, but Irish writers tend to take a no-holds-barred approach to laying open the particular madness to which Irish culture can lay claim. In some ways, it’s refreshing to see a people so matter-of-fact about societal ills and cultural trappings, while so many other people pretend theirs don’t exist.
Last week I had the opportunity to catch a play called The Walworth Farce, by writer Enda Walsh. It’s been performed a few times in the past few years, both in Ireland and the US (and elsewhere), and has always been well-received. The story revolves around a father and his two sons, originally from Cork, who live in a dingy apartment in London (on Walworth Road). As it opens, there’s a bit of confusion as to what is happening, but quickly you realize that the characters are themselves acting out stories, taking on other characters, and possibly re-enacting past events. There’s a bit of hysterical absurdity, a lot of physical slapdashery, and a sense of deeper currents; within this story of a story, there’s possibly yet another story occurring.
So some things are laid out straight – the father is Dinny and he’s nostalgic for the auld country. The elder son, Blake, seems suited to taking on the female roles in the stories they are creating/re-enacting. The younger son, Sean, seems to be the only one to leave the apartment ever, every morning as he goes to Tesco to pick up groceries (which are apparently used as props in the story-within-the-story). As the play opens, this morning, Sean seems to have picked up the wrong bag of groceries, and the next two hours follow the slow devolution of the family as cracks appear in the facade. When Hayley, the checkout clerk at the Tesco, stops by, the rollercoaster continues its freefall into both chaos and tragic and painful truth-telling.
Now take all of this raw potential and channel into one of the finest acting families in Ireland – the Gleesons. Brendan Gleeson plays the father, and his own sons play Blake and Sean. It’s not only so very meta, it’s also a casting coup, and a brilliant decision all around. They are first of all excellent actors, but it’s discomfiting to watch a character who is violent towards his own children knowing that all of the actors are related. The whole thing is at times more real, and at times more absurd.
As an American, I’m fairly certain I missed a significant amount of the jokes, and the accents were sometimes difficult to follow as well. I’ll take the word of other viewers and critics that the play shines a critical lens on a number of issues current to Irish society – the nostalgia of the Irish abroad, dysfunctional families, money and all the troubles it brings, and many others. But one thing that really stood out for me was the fluidity of both the actors and the script in switching between the comedic and serious/tragic elements (something, I think, is well done in Irish literature). At times, the transition was so smooth that the audience was still laughing before realizing that an act of violence or a harsh comment was not part of the story being acted out, but actually occurring in “real life” for the family. Realizing this makes the production both more engaging and more disturbing.
As an aside, we saw the play on its last night. Proceeds for the show went to St Francis Hospice. We paid more for the tickets, but hospice is one of those causes where I just don’t think you can give enough. So it was an amazing opportunity to both be able to see this play and support an amazing cause.
(note: post title is a line from the play)