Ballyturk, National Theatre, review: Cillian Murphy is exhilarating to watch

But at several frustrating moments this work feels pointless

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The Independent Culture

So, what's Ballyturk all about? Frankly, dear reader, I don't give a damn. Or rather, I've given up trying to figure it out.

The plot, devised in workshop sessions by writer-director Enda Walsh and cast members Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi, seems to be a sort of cruelly puzzling joke designed to torment the audience with cryptic messages about death, the power of imagination, making one's mark on the world, the trials of the artist's life and other existential issues, without ever really getting to the point.

In a peak of head-wracking desperation, I thought it might even be about bunnies (they do mention bunnies, malevolent ones, and flies) and how they live their fleeting lives to the full by packing so much into them, and how this should be an example to us all. But then again, no.

Writer-director Enda Walsh is known for locking his characters into airtight rooms where the real world is just a vague and distant notion, and Ballyturk is no different. Murphy and Murfi play two unnamed characters, racing maniacally through the day with a bizarre routine of dressing, undressing, dancing to power ballads, bursting red balloons and playing characters from their imaginary Irish town of Ballyturk.

There's a Beckettian quality to their exchanges — asking his friend to jog his memory, Murphy demands: “tell me something of no importance and the word will come to me, guaranteed.” But instead of waiting for Godot, or waiting for anything, they seem mostly content in their bubble, afraid, even, of what the real world might bring — and there's a childish, fraternal chemistry between them that's very watchable.

The set design by Jamie Vartan is brilliant. It's a brutalist grey concrete room, with a fake stage on the back wall, which later opens onto a “real world” outside. The stage-on-the-stage is framed by vomit-yellow curtains and filled with little scratchy pencil drawings of the Ballyturk characters' faces, like an audience watching us. The actors make good use of the dark wooden furniture fixed to the walls, by slamming into it and clambering over it.

The most remarkable thing about the duo, in fact, is their astounding energy. Mikel Murfi reels through an impressive performance of different Ballyturk characters with artful physicalisation and dramatic vocal gear shifts; it's like watching a drastically speeded up audition tape.

While Murphy flings himself across the stage like a demented Puck — twitching on the floor, bashing his head on a wall then leaping gaily onto a high shelf. It's exhilarating and exhausting just to watch him. The rumour is that he was so enthusiastic in rehearsals he managed to smash a wardrobe to shreds.

There's poignancy in the play, like when Murphy falls into a fit and Murfi silently takes him into his arms, calmly waiting until it's over, or when Stephen Rea appears as an enigmatic, chain-smoking visitor (is he Death? God? Murphy's character's father? I give up) and speaks poetically about the briefness of life and the need for “laying down legacy”.

There's humour too, in the elaborate Jenga tower of biscuits, brought to appease Rea's formidable character, or the surreal running joke about bunnies having five legs.

But without a clear plot to anchor them, these moments of humour and sadness feel like a match lit in a vacuum, they spark and vanish and don’t catch light. Murphy's character says in the final scenes, “there's no life to it. It's filling the room with words.”

At several frustrating moments, this work feels just as pointless.

September 16 – October 11; 020 7452 3000

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