A Whistle in the Dark by Tom Murphy, bears all the marks of a work of that club, dubbed “angry young men,” who penned gritty, primal works that rocked audiences and revolutionized British theatre in the 1960’s. A Whistle in the Dark, the Irish playwright’s first full length play was written at the age of 25 and hit the London stage in 1961 with such forceful momentum it soon transferred to the West End and cemented the playwright’s reputation.
The work bears more than a little resemblance to Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce seen in a recent season as part of an Irish Festival at Studio Theatre. I wrote about that show that “it felt like a dizzying descent through the deepest recesses of the skull to the stem brain where [the playwright] exposes our most base emotions of terror and rage.” The same could be said of A Whistle in the Dark. Both works depict the world of Irish emigrants to England and the relationship of father and sons, where the father is revealed as brutish and tyrannical. Whereas The Walworth Farce insinuated and unfolded itself slowly, this starts more like a Greek tragedy, already cranked emotionally, and it bellows at and pounds you.
An Irish father has brought his youngest son from Ireland and joined three other brothers who all have moved in with Michael, son number one, and his English wife, Betty. We first see Betty resignedly sweeping up broken bottles and trash leftover from the previous night’s carousing by the loutish brood of men, who have taken over the home and lives of the couple.
The plot has to do with what to do about baby brother. Des, the baby in the family, still bears some sweetness and innocence in him. Michael sees in him a chance to elude the family’s stinking and criminal ways and wants to protect him. All the brothers feel that Des has some brains and indeed could have been a contender like his big brother Michael. But the other sons, a rough Neanderthal lot, who brandish chains and brass knuckles, resent this and see it as a sign of weakness. Led by Dada, bragging and bellowing, they want to toughen Des up.
It seems Dada has succeeded in toughening up his other sons all right. With plenty of alcohol under their belts, they want nothing more than the merest excuse to head out into the night for some head bashing and gang fighting. When Des gets his first taste of blood, he shows us how quickly the adrenalin of that can feed a warped sense of power and worth. Then there’s only Michael who doesn’t like blood and battle.
I’ll confess the world of drunken brawling males is neither one I understand or care to spend much time contemplating. This visceral show was tough and challenging on many levels. The fight scenes were so graphically produced by fight director Malcolm Ransom that while I could admire the artistry I felt punched in the stomach.
Having said that, the acting was outstanding. The night before I’d seen several of the same ensemble members in the very different and, to my mind, more nuanced, mature work of Murphy, Conversations on a Homecoming.
For his role as Iggy, Rory Nolan had transformed himself from the lumpy, passive mate in the other play to a terrifying giant of an “iron man” (an iconic symbol from which the play took its original title.) Likewise, Garrett Lombard had shed his academic clothes and racing mental activity to become Hugo, the loutish partner in crime to brother Iggy with much lower aims and center of gravity. Aaron Monaghan as Harry completed the gang trio of brothers and, with more gray cells left undamaged by avoiding head banging as his preferred fighting method, in some ways this brother was the most lethal of all.
Marty Rea plays big brother Michael, whose character, as in Conversations, has sought to break out of the mold of what had been expected him. While his physical transformation was not as dramatic as the other actors, Rea certainly carries us through the emotional arc of his character, which drives the work and allows us to follow Michael’s conflicting torment. As he pokes his fingers in the air confronting his Dada, his digits seem as broken and tortured as his life. Michael’s monologue, as he confesses to Betty being jumped by some English toughs, is heart wrenching.
As he recounts how they spit on him and called him “black,” we begin to understand how prejudice universally warps perception and shapes how people then treat others. It’s important to remember that not so long ago it was commonplace that Irish, as well as African Americans in this country, were vilified and abused.
Michael’s wife Betty, played by Eileen Walsh, uses every tactic she can to rid her house and their marriage of the specter of the father and the monsters he created. Walsh had played a silly and hysterical comic girly in Conversations, but here she has dried out her gestures and voice to portray a sobered and sympathetic character, as she fights for the soul of her husband.
Over all these characters Dada towers and terrorizes. Played by Niall Buggy, it’s a performance that is nothing short of brilliant. I’d seen him in Penelope in the Irish festival at Studio Theatre, another wonderful role but one in which he seemed to embody his weak, inadequate suitor waiting for Odysseus’ queen. Here vocally and physically Buggy seemed to have grown. He sounded and filled the space, a giant of a man.
Buggy’s Dada has no respect for any man in his family that can’t fight, for above all a man must have pride. In his rough world that means bullying those around him into proving they are the toughest fighters. “Ye great lords,” he hails them. But as he stumbles for words as dominating pater, he reveals he is no less “t’ick” (thick) than his sons. He has spent his whole life, it seems, covering up that he’s a nobody in the outside world and a coward, by coming home and beating up his wife and belting his sons or forcing them into a gruesome type of gladiatorial combat.
DruidMurphy: A Whistle in the Dark
Ends Sept 20, 2012
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
2 hours, 33 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $65
Details and tickets
There were some problems for me in the staging. I am not sure how much restaging was done and if it was a response to the awkward acoustics of the Eisenhower Theatre, but by pushing the set so far downstage, the little one-set living room lost any depth and got so very wide that the characters had to cross back and forth almost in a line. These cramped quarters also changed the ways the actors could relate to each other. More used to facing each other and playing naturalistically, I imagine, the actors sometimes ended up delivering their lines into the wings.
Whistle in the Dark leaves us with more questions than it answers, and maybe in some ways that’s a good thing. Why doesn’t son Harry, who finally recognizes his father’s cowardice, back him down in their confrontation. As the sons watch their father pull off the bit of “plaster” (bandaid) to reveal nary a scratch, why don’t all the brothers see through their father’s flimsy tale about his fight? Why doesn’t Michael leave when he realizes he can’t save his baby brother?
Director Garry Hynes should be commended on presenting the ambitious feat of delivering us three of Murphy’s best known works and to tackle this play that so gruelingly takes the “fun” out of dysfunction. It’s a powerful story, for sure. For those who have a stomach or even relish verbal and physical violence in their entertainment, this is one for you.
A Whistle in the Dark. Written by Tom Murphy. Directed by Garry Hynes. Produced by Galway theatre company, Druid, and presented by The John F. Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.