What are the qualities that define an outstanding performance? I mean, what is it that makes something great rather than just good? For ninety minutes without an interval in a very cramped seat at the Lyttleton, I found myself in awe of Cillian Murphy. I soon forgot about how uncomfortable I was and settled to watch his riveting monologue. The subject matter did not capture me so I can remove that factor from my opening question. Don’t get me wrong though, there is nothing wrong with the story, but for me personally it just isn’t my natural area of interest.
For one and a half hours he totally immerses himself into the guise of Thomas McGill, a confused no-hoper living in the small town of Innisfree. We learn of his affection for biscuit-loving mum (mammy), his pain at the death of his dad and he introduces us to an eclectic mix of townsfolk, some clearly as distracted as him. Cassette recorder strapped to his shoulder wherever he goes, McGill finds friendship and comfort in the playback of his many taped conversations of the past. Some are truly touching, others darkly disturbing, some are just mundane, but all offer an insight into his world. For Tommy does not really reside in Innisfree, he dwells there, exists there, but lives in his own imagination and it is this fanciful place that Murphy is able to bring to life with stunning realism.
The design is abstract and huge, a two-storey industrial building that becomes Thomas’ playground, his home and a shrine to his parents. We’re told that his father is dead, but his mother’s situation is less clear and this is a clever trick by playwright Enda Walsh. Mammy is always present but never seen; there in spirit, a strong character on stage though not tangible. Thomas is depressed, frustrated, bullied and finds consolation in her and his faith. He cannot live without her and refuses to let go, he cannot for she is his only true friend and lifeline.
Making full use of a host of props, together with some mime and plenty of dialogue, he becomes the embodiment of a whole town. The tormented Thomas rips around his surroundings, trying to correct the town’s inhabitants of their immorality. Presumably this is his interpretation of his parents’ influence, his evangalism becoming a method of pleasing them.
There are many unanswered questions, since trying to make full sense of the story is itself nonsensical. The fact that it is comprehensible at all is due to the intense understanding that the writer and actor have formed. A partnership that combines both minds to produce that illusive quality, the key that opens the door and makes this production all the more remarkable.
Murphy’s totally convincing portrayal makes us believe not only in Thomas but also in his mammy and the host of other characters he introduces and maybe now I’m starting to comprehend just what makes a performance great.
- - - - - - - - - -
Reviewed 14/04/12 (first preview)
by Gareth Richardson @BargainTheatre
Runs until 28th May 2012
Lyttleton, National Theatre, London, SE1.
*WARNING: MOST DEFINITELY CONTAINS SPOILERS*
Tonight was my debut outing with Twitter’s very own Twespian society, bringing together theatre types who love to tweet…and seeing as I tweet more than breathe, I thought I should see what all the fuss is about. Richmond Theatre played host to the society treating us with complimentary food, drinks and tickets…now you all want to join! Having missed it at the National I was very excited have the opportunity to see Barlett’s critically acclaimed piece.
Earthquakes in London by Mike Bartlett received its premiere in 2010 at the Cottesloe Theatre, the smallest and most intimate of the National Theatre’s spaces.
Earthquakes rockets us from 1968 to 2025 in 2 hours and 35 minutes. The play focuses on the lives of three sisters, abandoned by their father who’s climate predictions have affected their lives more than he thought possible. The eldest sister Sarah, played by Tracy-Ann Oberman, is a politician caught between obligation and expectation. The middle sister Freya (Leah Whitaker) is frightened by the prospects of bringing her unborn child into a dying world. Jasmine is the youngest sister (Lucy Phelps), who was raised by Sarah when their mother died, a troubled student in desperate search of love. The play presents us with a myriad of characters as it attempts to highlight the dangers of climate change, through one family’s life.
Tracy-Ann Oberman executes the headstrong business woman with ease, reminiscent of her stint on Doctor Who…not the only Who reference to be made this evening. Tracy shares a touching relationship with her husband (Seán Gleeson), the dynamic seems somewhat off, so we can understand the attraction to her colleague but the embers of a dying spark still exists between them. Leah Whitaker is the eccentric, emotional, mother-to-be, we feel for her but she is hard to watch at times, hysterics reaching maximum heights. Lucy Phelps embodies the attention seeking, self destroying student in her ripped tights and tiny tops, acting outrageously but touches with her paternal reunion. Helen Kripps’ 14 year old Peter is a wonderfully written character, which she constructs with her precise comic timing. Paul Shelley as the girls’ father Robert is exquisite, delivering one of the best scenes through his diatribe on his relationship with Mrs Andrews, making one hunger for more similar work from Bartlett (maybe a one person play).
My problems come with the actual piece itself. It simply tries to do too much…hence being 2 hours and 35 mins, that’s without the interval. We jump back and forth through time with lightning speed that you barely have time to register where you are or why you’re there. The sisters’ narratives slowly unfold and you begin to piece each one together and invest in their lives, which Bartlett should have focused more on. The issue arises with the message and the attempt to cram it into every nook and cranny and down the throat of the audience. This all culminates in a completely out of place animation regarding Solomon who walked the earth bare foot to deliver a message to humanity (Martha Jones anyone? Last of the Time Lords?). This warning of climate change is then broadcast worldwide via satellites, televisions, newspapers etc all the things which caused climate change in the first place! Music was neatly used throughout to relieve us from the constant flow of dialogue, without detracting too much. I will never understand the relevance of a talking foetus, an unused bungee cord, an echoey heaven hospital or a transgendered, imaginary, unborn-yet-born child. So we’ll leave that there.
The design was tremendous, simultaneous revolves eased transitions stylistically between scenes and the constantly changing, ever moving backdrops of London enhanced vitality and movement, aiding an accurate sense of location.
Earthquakes has an array of poignant moments, some very strong, powerful performances and alluring stylistic features but seems unsure of what it’s actually trying to be. A story intertwined with global warming or a fictionally glossed political message? Narratives run smoothly into each other but are laboured with cumbersome scientific detail, leading to a completely unrealistic and unsatisfying, futuristic, Alice in Wonderland ending.
Earthquakes is a shaky piece, worth a look for its style and spirit but unfortunately not a red on my richter scale.
- - - - - - - - - -
25th - 29th October 2011
Richmond Theatre, Richmond TW9.
UK tour 22nd Sep - 12th Nov 2011.
- - - - - - - - - -
Mike Bartlett’s 13 will play at the National’s Olivier Theatre.
1st November 2011 - 8th January 2012.
FOLLOW @Twespians on Twitter