Irish history is like a giant loop tape that keeps replaying the same disastrous results, over and over. That’s one of the darker thoughts that might occur to you watching Enda Walsh’s entertaining play Misterman, which is now playing at the St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.
A one-man-show that calls on the very considerable talents of Irish film star Cillian Murphy, Misterman is a fascinating recreation of the characters, sights and sounds of the mythical Yeatsian sounding Inishfree village.
Under the eyes of watchful loner named Thomas Magill (played with an all-electric intensity by Murphy), Inishfree is unveiled as a sort of smoking cauldron of villainous lechery.
It’s a locality unredeemed by kindness or compassion; the only law seems to be to please yourself and to hell with the begrudgers. Yeats wouldn’t have liked it, it’s fairly safe to suggest.
Since Thomas is a particularly religious and conservative young man, the feral, live-for-the-moment attitudes of his selfish neighbors appall him.
Worse, he has been marked by most of them as a halfwit, or just as a harmless holy roller hardly worth noticing. Because they ignore him so completely, they never notice how closely he’s been watching them.
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In a way he’s a bit of a metaphor for the writer. Placed outside everyday participation in the life of his village by his unique ability and desire to record every aspect of its doings -- in particular, in regard to the fateful day that has changed his life -- Thomas will never be just another typical face.
But do the people of Inishfree give him his due? Do they hell.
Instead of praise he’s met with caustic put downs and abuse. It’s more than one man can stand, and almost from the moment he appears on stage we can tell that eventually he’s going to explode.
Finding that kind of slow burn intensity inside yourself and allowing it to grow as the play progresses is one of the challenges of Misterman, and Murphy rises to superbly to the challenge.
“I think Thomas is the kind of person that immediately is sociologically recognizable in Ireland,” Murphy tells the Irish Voice.
“That sort of guy that lives on the fringes of this little town. The whole of his life he’s been looking for help but instead he just falls through the cracks. That happens all the time in Ireland. It’s clear there’s a universality to it too because people recognize it here in America.”
Disco Pigs, another early play by Walsh, gave Murphy his first professional role 16 years ago.
“It’s been about six years since I’ve done a play anywhere and I was very anxious to get back on stage. Disco Pigs just changed my life entirely,” Murphy says.
“It was the beginning of my career and Enda auditioned me for that role. I was reading all these other plays and they weren’t very good and I was thinking, I’m friends with a really important writer why the f*** don’t I pester him. “
The one-man show is like the Mount Everest of acting, Murphy says.
“You’re terrified by it, but if it works it’s a remarkable thing for the audience and the actor. Those things combined made the idea of doing it very attractive. “
Misterman was written in the late nineties and was originally a role that Walsh performed himself, but the production back then was = fraught and difficult and the play never really delivered, he says.
“I had seen other productions of Misterman around Europe and Cillian, who lives near me in London, read it and suggested we work together,” says Walsh.
“ We never see one another in London because we’re always busy. So it seemed like a good opportunity to work together for a while and make a piece of work.”
Since they rarely meet because of their work schedules, the opportunity to collaborate allowed them to rekindle their friendship as well as their professional relationship.
“It was just Cillian, me and the stage manager rehearsing in the room,” says Walsh. “I sort of knew that we were having a great time and when we arrived in The Black Box Theatre in Galway to premiere the show, we saw this enormous set. I thought well you only get a small chance to make it work on that scale and go out there and be hugely brave about it.”
The two made a decision to open the play at the Galway Arts Festival in July because they both have long established ties to the town.
“I thought from the beginning that scale would be important, that we needed to perform it in a large space like a warehouse,” says Walsh.
“The Black Box in Galway is a massive space and even the walk up to it is interesting. It’s located beside a river and its quite spooky. I thought all of that suited the play.”
The thing about working with a friend of yours when you start, you immediately have a trust there and a shared history, Murphy says, discussing their collaborate process.
“We were just able to talk very openly and honestly about the work and what we wanted to do with it. Before we had even sat down in the rehearsal room Enda had rewritten quite extensively, putting in a whole new beginning. He had framed it in quite a different place,” Murphy says.
Walsh says his work works best if he imagines his characters actually exist. He has to think about them logically and think about what they have done.
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How long have they been living there and where does they come from and where is this town? What’s their relationship with this space and the outside world?
“I’m always interested in characters who have locked themselves away from the outside world and are trying to untangle themselves from that,” says Walsh.
“It’s either possible for them or it’s too deep rooted. Thomas can’t back away or find solace or reinvent the person he has been all these years. He’s a completely troubled, strange individual who’s trying to find peace and someone to love.
“But you feel as if he’s at his last refuge or last couple of hours, and if he doesn’t balance the books soon he’ll expire or something. You feel as if you’re in the presence of this deranged but focused brilliant person. And at times you feel as if you’re in his head. You’re seeing the world from his point of view.”
Misterman is now playing at the St. Ann’s Warehouse theatre in Brooklyn.
Here's the promotional video from the Galway Arts Festival this summer: