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 Walsh’s 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 father’s 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 O’Brien (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 character’s 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