Enda Walsh, the featured playwright of The New Ireland Festival at Studio Theatre, defies easy classification. But one thing is sure: whether he grabs part of the myth of Odysseus and resets it at the bottom of a drained swimming pool as in Penelope or uses the bashed-in skeleton of a London Council flat to set a doomed farce as in The Walworth Farce, you can believe he will take you on a dizzying descent through the deepest recesses of the brain to the stem brain where he exposes our most base emotions of terror and rage.
On the ride, Walsh doesn’t make it easy. Let’s start with farce. The Walworth Farce isn’t. Well, not exactly. Lights up and three men are in three different areas of a shared living space, but the pieces don’t fit, and the first several minutes of the play are acted in silence while the audience sits trying to figure it out this odd triptych. In the bedroom, stage right, a young man is ironing a garment on top of a cardboard box cut in the shape of an ironing board or, as we discover later, a small coffin. He calmly dons the ironed dress. Center stage, an older man in a ruddy suit, plays a cassette of Bing Crosby crooning “Luraluralei”, an Irish lullaby. Stage left, another young man unpacks a shopping bag that features a large sausage then grows increasingly agitated, paces and finally stuffs the sausage in the stove.
Then the three men assemble, and, on cue, begin to act out some kind of farce, donning a variety of bad wigs and costume pieces. A few audience members tittered appreciatively but after awhile the laughter stopped. We didn’t or couldn’t play the game because we just didn’t know what the game was. The actors communicated that there was something forced, something edgy, something not quite right.
Very slowly and well into the play, Walsh begins to serve up the missing pieces. A father and his two sons have left Ireland and live in a dilapidated no man’s land of government subsidized housing in London. Only one of them goes out for the shopping. Their lives are mostly structured around their telling stories or acting out about their lives and family members back home. The farce is not being rehearsed for a local competition but something much more primal.
The acting is astonishing. Ted van Griethuysen plays the father and brilliantly carries us through the arc of his character from sentimental and weak-minded old man to terrorizing monster. The sons, Sean played by Alex Morf and Blake played by Aubrey Deeker, are equally strong, sometimes compelling and at other times terrifying as they snap and push the edge of savagery.
Walsh never lets you settle on which son is the protagonist or the most sympathetic. Alex Morf starts out a little daft and clearly is the less preferred son by his Da. He will never win the acting prize. Aubrey Deeker plays Blake as a confident and winsome actor, if a little quirky in all the female roles. But as the play progresses, we witness Blake become cowering and dangerous in his woundedness. Brother Sean on the other hand may have some survival skills the other two don’t.
When in the second act, Azania Dungee, as the girl from the supermarket, enters having trudged up over a dozen flights to find Sean, we feel her kindness turn to “creeped-outness” and sheer terror. Dungee does a lovely job playing the innocent, kind soul, who represents the Everywoman and reluctant voyeur to this dysfunctional family. Will it be a question of no good deed goes unpunished?
Irish Director Matt Torney has crossed the pond to storm the beach like a one man marine assault, and he takes no prisoners with this production. His deft handling and deep understanding of the roots of this voice of New Ireland captures both the sardonic humor underneath the farce structure and the savagery. He has directed the men in the show to deliver their lines at break neck speed, and the pace conveys both their sick fury and the round-a-bout that keeps them from getting off but instead endlessly circling in their ritualized routines.
Story-telling is the chief routine. Walsh seems fascinated with how stories both save us, bind us together, and how they trap us into limiting our self-knowledge and possibilities. In this play, Walsh is indeed son of old Ireland and the tradition of the storyteller who embellishes, entertains, but also succumbs to his own fiction. Also, as in his other works, there are stories within stories. Here, they are delivered sometimes in a burst of farcical dialogue but at other times in dazzling virtuosic monologues, for which Walsh is famous. I’d pen them gorgeous arias for their sheer musicality.
The characters like so many Walsh has created, hate silence and they rant to avoid the great void of terror that silence represents. The last image in The Walworth Farce, in silence, is all the more disturbing because the voices have been stopped.
Don’t for a moment think this is a play only about familial relationships. There is a political heart sputtering here, and Director Torney never lets us forget it. It’s a play about the great disapora of the Irish who flee the poverty, the lies, and the violence that has held Ireland for so much of its history. But the farther people flee, the more they long for the home they fear never was. In particular, by setting the work in London, Walsh wants us to remember the painful antagonizing relationship of Ireland and England. The men in the show are terrified in part because “they” are out there, waiting for them. The British have become the bogeymen. That last image in the production is a startling and horrific symbol of what happens to an individual or a country that has been oppressed by slavery.
This is not a show for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached. And Walsh is not going to apologize for the odd foul language, feck no. But if you want to hear a writer glittering with verbal prowess at the top of his game and behold protean performances, you need to see The Walworth Farce.
The Walworth Farce
By Enda Walsh
Directed by Matt Torney
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission
- Gary Tischler . The Georgetowner
- Chris Klimek . Washington City Paper
- Jenn Larsen . WeLoveDC
Bob Anthony . AllArtsReview4Youh