Talking Movies

October 6, 2015

The Last Hotel

Playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh adds another string to his bow with his first libretto, the opera being scored by his Misterman collaborator Donnacha Dennehy.

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Mikel Murfi’s silent hotel porter cares for a ramshackle two-star hotel. At least it’s ramshackle from what we see in Jamie Vartan’s set, which impressively fills the Belvedere College stage; a canted platform surrounded by the detritus of hotel cleaning and catering, with a series of ad hoc handholds to one side for Murfi to shin up the back wall to his tiny bedroom above the stage. From that perch he notices with horror a bloodstain on the platform and descends to clean it up. This cleaning their room is what holds up the opera’s characters: Soprano Claudia Boyle’s Irishwoman who cheerfully greets an English couple; baritone Robin Adams and his sullen wife, soprano Katherine Manley. Adams helped Boyle at an event; she’d underestimated the amount of wine that would be drunk; so she’s turned to him for darker help…

Walsh’s libretto isn’t quite as outré as his plays, but it’s still recognisably his world. Adams and Manley have been hired to murder Boyle with a gas canister, a plastic bag, and some rope to make it fast. Manley is reluctant, and sings sadly of her husband’s emotional distance from her. Adams, however, extols the joys of hotel food; “People tend to pile the plate, but not me, I respect the buffet”; exults in the extension Boyle’s blood money will finance; “A kitchen of substantial size”; and scolds Murfi over his lack of hygiene in preparing mashed potatoes. Boyle seems to be suicidal because her teenage daughter is moody, or because everyone’s always looking to her for leadership; pretty flimsy reasons for checking out. But in this strangely haunted last hotel, as Manley chillingly predicts, no one can ever leave.

Walsh also directs, which means not only showcasing Murfi’s physical acting and creating an elevator from spotlighting a square light and having Crash Ensemble play muzak, but also, after recent bafflingly squib-free stabbings in A View from the Bridge and By the Bog of Cats, that blood is properly spilt when Adams and Murfi have an altercation. It’s harder to judge Dennehy’s contribution. Nobody’s going to mistake this for a Verdi score, and yet, while plenty atonal, it’s not Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire either. The most unsettling moments, especially the climax, are driven by jagged, frenzied strings that almost combine Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Herrmann’s Psycho. The prominent use of piano, flute, and xylophone gives an unusual texture to the music, while there are definite touches of Philip Glass in the minimalist repetition that Dennehy often uses to underpin arias.

The Last Hotel is a qualified success. It’s certainly an interesting meeting of minds between Enda Walsh and Landmark Productions and the other cultural world of Wide Open Opera.

3/5

August 14, 2014

Ballyturk

Cillian Murphy and playwright Enda Walsh reunite for their second collaboration in two years, following Misterman’s success, and Ballyturk is another extravaganza of physical theatre.

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Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi are trapped in a massive room, which, courtesy of designer Jamie Vartan, fills every inch of the stage, with a fold-down bed, a shower, a kitchen-space, and endless closets. The play begins with Murphy in a hurling helmet screaming his head off about the inhabitants of Ballyturk. Murfi, however, is not dressed yet – and so ABC’s ‘The Look of Love’ soundtracks their ritualised manic getting-dressed routine. It will be the first of many 1980s pop songs that they dance to amongst other performances. They listen to mysterious voices from next door, are terrified of a cuckoo clock, and, when their alarm clock rings, throw darts at a wall of sketches and then enact the interactions of the pinpointed inhabitants of Ballyturk. And writer/director Enda Walsh relishes the physical theatre of their recreations of Ballyturk’s denizens.

Murphy leaps around the stage, even nearing its roof as he perches on a ledge to portray the town’s waspish storekeeper, embittered by her loss at bingo to her hated rival Mrs Reynolds. He has frequent fits, which Murfi holds him during, and becomes despairing at the presence of a fly which makes their routines less satisfactory so that he bangs his head against a wall till he bleeds. Murfi joins Murphy in destroying their LP collection, and cycles manically through Ballyturk’s rogue’s gallery, but his calmer character is defined by his elaborate stacking of biscuits. Stephen Rea’s startling arrival into this closed space is an equally startling change of pace, as he engages in a lengthy monologue about ageing, parenthood, and both the necessity and purpose of death in creating meaning by bringing lives, and stories, to an end.

But what’s it all about? Are they brothers? Is Rea their father? Perhaps. Murfi protects Murphy, and says he as the eldest should be first to go when Rea threatens one must die. But Teho Teardo’s foreboding music, and a chilling final minute, suggest a different interpretation – perhaps this is a more manic and surreal Room-like depiction of abduction? Rea’s musical number, in which a mic is lowered down from above certainly suggests effortless control. Or maybe it’s Plato’s allegory of the cave? Rea offers a glimpse of the world outside, but are its flowers that bloom from nothing in minutes more real than the rich Ballyturk created by the neon sign over the gallery of sketches, and could Murphy and Murfi ever accept a world outside their own mental projections as being as satisfyingly real as their imaginative creations?

It could be a poetic vision of mental illness. Ultimately I have no idea what this play is about and I rather like that. It’s simply barmy and brilliant.

4/5

Ballyturk continues its run at the Olympia Theatre until the 23rd of August.

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