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Enda Walsh has yet to
achieve the international renown of Conor McPherson, but he is one of the most ferocious
new voices in contemporary Irish theatre. He shot to fame in 1996 with the production of Disco
Pigs, a two-hander about disturbed teenagers in love. Like McPherson, Walsh built his
drama out of lengthy monologues filled with linguistic eccentricities which created a
vivid and distinctive imaginative space for the actors to explore text and subtext while
the audience sat aghast. The play was a multiple award winner, including the George Devine
award in 1997, an honor previously bestowed upon Mike Leigh and Hanif Kureshi. It was
recently filmed by Kirstin
Sheridan from a script written by Walsh himself.
Bedbound was specially commissioned by the Eircom Dublin
Theatre Festival in 2000, where it was enthusiastically received. Since premiering there
it has been translated into several languages and has been on tour in Europe. It returns
to Dublin under Walshs direction and featuring Norma Sheahan reprising her Evening
Herald Dublin Theatre Award winning performance.
The play takes place on a confined, squalidly-decorated prefabricated
set mounted in the middle of the performance space. The two characters are a father (Liam
Carney) and daughter (Sheahan), who share space on a small bed. Though the initial
dynamics of their relationship suggest a lack of connection between them, their stories,
related through monologues, eventually merge. He tells of a life dedicated to furniture
sales, a profession which so absorbs the man that he literally kills to advance in it. She
babbles incoherently about the walls closing in and voices seemingly abstract thoughts in
an attempt to mentally escape her surroundings and fill the void of silence between her
and her father.
The story reveals how this man came to father this child, and how his
fanatical devotion to success led him to plumb the depths of moral turpitude in the name
of success. His child meanwhile, though initially a disappointment because of her gender,
was to be groomed as his successor, until fateful events resulted in the debilitating
illness which keeps her in the bed. Her fathers frustration, running deeper than
anything to do with the child, has finally reached a point where all he wants to do is
crawl into that same bed to sleep and shut out the world.
Bedbound is a stylized, highly artificial piece of theatre in
spite of its elements of visual naturalism. Its heightened realism is really more a form
of expressionism, pushing its characters and set to the limits of the credible in the name
of drawing parallels between the internal and the external. Both characters are ultimately
more confined by mental space than physical, and their limited wardrobe and movement
represent this. Though there is a level of interaction between the characters, and the
action supposedly takes place in real time, the stylization extends to the form of the
play. In common with McPherson and Eugene OBrien (Eden), Walsh favors the monologue because it allows him to
concentrate the language to express a variety of textual and sub-textual themes. The
dialogue is intensely focused and extremely descriptive, laced with colloquialisms which
locate the action in Cork (like Disco Pigs), but also with profanities and
poetic reflections which allow him to explore the characters inner
worlds in more detail than natural conversation would allow.
It is an extremely insular form of theatre though. It can rob the drama
of a sense of context. The morality of the characters actions is framed only by
events as they perceive them, and presumably how they. in turn. are perceived by the
audience. Bedbound does broaden its horizons a bit further than Disco Pigs
in this regard insofar as the father talks about such a wide variety of people from the
outer world who have influenced his life. There are still questions about the immediate
veracity of the events he describes though, as it is hard to tell what is real and what is
part of his own obsessional world-view.
Bedbound is an extremely intense theatrical experience nonetheless.
The verbal action often reaches such a pitch that bloodshed is an inevitable and cathartic
relief. The rhythm of the play is such that it hits several peaks of this type before
arriving at its unlikely and tender resolution, a moment which raises more questions than
it answers, which is precisely the point.
The play places great stresses on its performers, but they are up to
it. Carney is at turns amusing and frightening as the self-absorbed furniture salesman.
Sheahan (Car Show 3) finds space for
thespian intricacy amid the abstract imagery and confused ranting which makes up her
characters dialogue. It is easy to see why this role, her first professional
engagement, has been such a success for her.
Dublin, February 6, 2002
- Harvey O'Brien