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Answering a 1972 questionnaire from his friend and eventual biographer, James Knowlson, Samuel Beckett shed scant light on his influences. “I simply know next to nothing about my work in this way,” he admitted, “as little as a plumber of the history of hydraulics.” Echoes of other texts, the playwright insisted, “are just bits of pipe I happen to have with me.”
Beckett’s aesthetic grandson, Enda Walsh, has been fitting Beckettian pipe for some time. From his 1996 splash Disco Pigs (currently revived by Irish Rep) to the new Ballyturk at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Walsh churns out careening, logorrheic scripts that spurn narrative cohesion and embrace a gritty, athletic staging. Countless dramatists — Irish and otherwise — have emulated the author of Waiting for Godot and Endgame, but it’s impossible to conceive of Walsh sans Beckett.
But whether you call Walsh inspired or derivative is a matter of taste. Over the years, I’ve waxed and waned in my admiration of his word salads and his impeccably designed, diorama-like imagery. His actors labor mightily, jigging at the edge of the void while hurling chunks of text into the crowd with gusto. Ballyturk centers on a pair named simply 1 (Tadhg Murphy) and 2 (Mikel Murfi), Celtic loons zooming around a battered, shabby room where they eat, sleep, and enact scenes from the town of the title. The back wall is festooned with crude drawings of villagers; darts thrown at faces determine the cast. We watch a simmering conflict between tender Cody Finnington, whose garish yellow sweater draws the disgusted ire of Larry Aspen, himself sinisterly obsessed with one Marnie Reynolds. In a bravura sequence, Murphy reels off the names of characters as Murfi morphs mutely into each one with cartoonish speed.
We never quite grasp the specific relationship between the men telling stories. Younger, delicate, and prone to seizures, 1 seems to generate the story material for Ballyturk; 2 sports a Heat Miser red up-do and alternately bullies and coddles his high-strung companion. As in most Walsh plays, they are hysterical prisoners in a sealed-off room ritualistically working through a mysterious trauma. The environment is impressively rendered: Jamie Vartan’s set and costume design achieve a trashy but disciplined vibe in which nothing — from the antic cuckoo clock to a pair of sad, gray BVDs hanging out to dry — is superfluous. Adam Silverman’s lighting keeps the fever dream throbbing and shifting before us, and sound designer Helen Atkinson conjures gruesome worlds beyond the walls of the set, as disembodied Irish ghouls natter on about eggs, cancer, and how our bodies fail us. (Close your eyes and imagine them peeking out of garbage cans.) Composer Teho Teardo contributes nerve-scraping industrial noise for more existential shivers. And to lighten the mood, Walsh choreographs nutty dance sequences for the boys to ’80s Britpop such as ABC’s “The Look of Love.”
About an hour into Walsh’s small-town psycho panto, a third character, called — naturally — 3 (Olwen Fouéré), enters through a brutally halved wall to stare down the clowns. With her flowing platinum locks and imperious demeanor, Fouéré is at once Pozzo, Godot, and the wraith from Ohio Impromptu. Walsh gives her an effectively creepy speech about her right hand, which holds a cigarette, and the relative loneliness of the left. They have tea and cookies, and then 3 invites one of the boys to join her in the flowery field beyond the wall. So is she Death?
More like the need to wrap things up. In play after play, Walsh explores the limitations of descriptive language and the perilous gap between imagination and reality. His theater fetishizes failure and repetition, and longs for disruptive catastrophe. The writer seems forever to be grappling with the emptiness and frustration of his own wordy spew — which you could read as poignant honesty or narcissistic cop-out. “How can I talk about Ballyturk knowing that it’s only ever inside this breaking body and nowhere else?” 1 laments toward the end. “There’s no freedom to it — it’s filling a room with words, not real life … so how? How?” One can’t really grumble that Walsh shirks meaning when, in fact, he bashes it on the nose. Words fail; life is grisly and pointless; death and birth are interchangeable. Hey, who else said that?