Theatre of the disturbed: Misterman at the National Theatre

Saturday 21st April 2012, evening

There’s one in every village.  And if you don’t know who it is, it’s you.  In this case it’s Thomas Magill, Cillian Murphy’s evangelist loner, plying his religious trade in the fictional Irish village of Innisfree, whilst running banal errands for his sick mother.  Misterman is not to be confused with the much-loved children’s cartoon characters the Mr Men (warning: clicking on this link may lead to repeated humming of the infectious Mr Men theme tune).  Whilst one could argue that the characters in Misterman are equally two-dimensional, the moral of this story is not quite so upbeat.  Enda Walsh’s play draws heavily on themes from a variety of sources, including his own play ‘Disco Pigs’, not to mention references to Beckett, Yeats, and no doubt many others of which we are simply unaware due to cultural ignorance (suggestions welcomed below).  There is no question the play gives Cillian Murphy another astonishing role to get his teeth into.  According to an interview he gave on Radio 4’s Front Row, Murphy was fairly daunted when he saw the proposed set design for the Lyttleton Theatre.  And we can see why.  Not only is he expected to fill a large stage, the design has almost doubled the playing area by stripping bare the stage to reveal the back wall – and a long way back it is. 

The most remarkable thing about this production is the sheer ingenuity and talent of everyone involved, and the ultimate unworthiness of the story they serve.  Cillian Murphy, last seen by us five years ago in the more conventional ‘Love Song’, but already showing his talent for playing mentally fragile characters, is everything we could hope for.  Running around like a demented puppy, hurling props around as though he had some kind of grudge against the stage hands, and generally filling the auditorium with febrile energy.  His performance is nicely balanced too, with quiet moments, and sometimes he is just as (if not more) effective standing stock still in the artificially generated Innisfree sunshine.

Murphy is supported by a cast of pre-recorded voices, and sound and lighting technicians who clearly love a challenge.  In a set which is literally like a warehouse, it is only the sound and lighting which give us a clue where we are supposed to be and where we should look.  There are some lovely touches, such as the sudden appearance of props just as they are needed, and the rather bizarre sight of Magill applying vics to a table while a recording of his mammy groaning with relief plays.  As director, Enda Walsh has created a truly remarkable event and pulled off a logistical tour de force.  Interestingly though, Walsh has said that he changed the play to make it more complicated, and we suspect he may have gone too far.  There are so many different levels involved – is Magill holed up in a warehouse, on the run, fantasising about his previous life?  Is this a metaphor for his imagination?  Is it a Brechtian distancing device?  Whilst it may be fun playing ‘spot the reference’, the emotional impact which could have been achieved from this story is sadly muted.

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2 Responses to Theatre of the disturbed: Misterman at the National Theatre

  1. poldergeist says:

    it’s interesting that although you liked the set immensely, and I hated it, we reached the same conclusion 🙂 Nice blog.


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