Tom Murphy is a dramatist who cannot be read. In certain playwrights work you can still find joy in an elegant sentence structure or, say in the oeuvre of Enda Walsh, a tremendously absurd situation that encourages your imagination to fully take off. However, something is lost from stage to page with Murphy. Having previously read Conversations on a Homecoming, I was troubled by what seemed like its slightness. On page it appears like nothing more than a thin pub parable. On stage it is transformed into a powerful and arresting drama, fitfully funny and frightfully sad. On exiting the Gaiety last night I overheard a happy punter commenting, ‘It could be set in any pub in Ireland.’ Therein lies the beauty. Murphy uses the simplest pretext to pose the most profound question: is it better to believe in everything or to believe in nothing?
Michael (Marty Rea) returns home to the White House pub, the site of his schoolyard idealism, to find happiness has shut up shop and the dry rot of middle-age has routinely set in. His friends’ lives are fetid disappointments, sacrifices hard-won in a small town. Tom (Garrett Lombard) is a failed writer and dispassionate schoolteacher, well versed in disillusionment, who scorns Michael for his ‘actorly ambition.’ Rory Nolan’s Junior skulls pints and finds satisfaction in smart remarks whilst Aaron Monaghan’s Liam looks in from the outside, his modicum of success pushing him to the periphery. Throughout the night they reveal the tidy lies of personal pride that can sustain a person and conceal cutting comments as erstwhile casualness. The offstage presence of JJ, the proprietor, dominates the proceedings. In Micheal’s opinion, the man inspired them to supersede their circumstances. To Tom, he is nothing more than a drunk and a blaggard who built myths based on rhetoric. As the tension escalates between those who left and those who were left behind, the dawn creeps towards another day of despair.
Garrett Lombard is excellent as the tired Tom, his hard looks doing their best to dispel Micheal’s romanticism. Eileen Walsh entertains as the put-upon Peggy, a woman who has allowed foolishness to be her comfort from fraught anxiety. This is a world of drink and violence, an endless merry-go-round of pain, and the ensemble cast convey their character’s frustration with every muted gesture. Most of the laughter comes from the very familiarity of these characters, the colour and love with which they are evoked. At one point, Tom asks Michael, ‘Are you speaking geographically?’ Tom Murphy only speaks geographically; his territory is the small towns of Ireland and his terrain the male mind.
My sole complaint with Conversations is that it wasn’t long enough. Like a session with friends at 2a.m, even though everyone is drunk and hates each other, you wish it could go on all night. With emigration as a subject matter being doled out with journalistic subtlety in a number of productions, Conversations is a rarity in the way that it succeeds with more than a degree of artfulness. Near the end Tom, quite rightly, accuses Michael of ‘not wanting reality.’ The opposite is true of Irish audiences. We want reality but only if it is always this beautifully rendered.