Tom Murphy’s Famine may at first seem the odd one out in the DruidMurphy cycle. Conversations on a Homecoming and Whistle in the Dark are modern plays; Famine is a history. Yet what ties all three together is a theme that has occupied Murphy’s writing for years: Ireland and emigration. How could Murphy not write about the Great Hunger? And while this theme is not a new one, the Famine itself is a subject that very few other playwrights, Irish or otherwise, deals with. It’s not difficult to see why – it is an event that is uncompromisingly bleak.
Murphy pulls no punches with it, either. But then, Famine could not have been anything but a tragedy. Presented in episodic scenes, the structure is loose and depends not so much on a strict plot but rather on the momentum and inevitability of the crises the characters find themselves trapped in. The main character is John O’Connor, the tragic hero and leader of sorts of a disintegrating community. O’Connor is the center of the play, both within and without; and it is his hope and his confusion that prove themselves the most harrowing. Here is a character that illuminates what the Famine was really all about: the land. It is the land that let down millions and it is this land that O’Connor will not leave. He waits and hopes for help, and can articulate no stronger reason than ‘Because… because… it is right.”
What Murphy also shows is not only the decay of the body but also of the mind and the spirit. The characters that populate Glanconnor become hungrier and with that hunger they also become desperate, criminal and savage. This was a national event that tore apart communities, families and the individuals within them apart and Murphy examines each level in painful detail.
Brian Doherty plays John O’Connor with a ruined and ragged pride and power, embodying it in his perfectly suited physicality that reflects on the demise of his character: a strong man made weak. Aaron Monaghan’s crippled Michaeleen is a counterpoint to O’Connor; he stalks like a malevolent spider across the bare stage, articulate and feral. These actors are backed by the extraordinary ensemble that Famine demands, and while some are silent, this is only fitting. Encapsulated in a scene where the clergy, merchants and landlords meet to discuss possible solutions, the silent ensemble slowly edge into the room throughout the scene. While those in power argue, arms creep around doors and legs entangle until there is a margin of silent bodies around the room. It is in moments such as this that Garry Hynes’ sensitive direction matches the power of Murphy’s words.
As the culmination of the DruidMurphy cycle – Famine being the last play shown – the reverse chronological order makes perfect sense. Here are the Irish whose descendants populate Conversations on a Homecoming and A Whistle in the Dark; a proud and desperate people.