The Misterman Upstairs: Review of Siren Theatre Company’s Misterman
Misterman (1999) is the second work by Irish playwright Enda Walsh that Siren Theatre Company has produced in recent years (the other being Penelope). For this piece the Old Fitz Theatre has once again been transformed: dark curtains drape across the back wall, and old reel-to-reel recorders litter the set, creating visuals reminiscent of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.
Misterman was first staged in an earlier version in 1999, with the playwright as the lead. After a series of rewrites, Enda Walsh directed Cillian Murphy in this one man show in New York (2011), and it was heavily praised by the critics. The play opens on Thomas Magill who is alone, playing back his reels, recounting a single day from his past: he knows them all by heart. Thomas believes that he is a godly man, sent to Inishfree to mend the sinning ways of the populous. Thomas seems the perfect example of saintliness and cheer, as he sets out on a mission to buy his ‘mammy’ some biscuits. Soon after however, he flies into a rage upon seeing a salacious calendar and later beats a dog to death. We start to realize that this guy is a bit unhinged. If Kate Gaul‘s direction has a fault, it’ll be this realization. We quickly work out that we’re on the bus to crazytown; the only question is how long it’ll take to get there. And sure enough, get there we do. While it always takes a certain skill to play crazy, the risk becomes finishing the play with a ‘so what.’ If a character is written off as a crazy then we need not attend to the broader happenings of the piece. For the piece to work more broadly, we need to see the character’s instability as a product of their surrounds. In the case of Thomas, it is possible to see his descent as the result of a cry for human contact, which is continually denied him. We are offered snatches of this when he goes to visit his father in the graveyard (as well as the fact that he is physically alone), but a little more help from the performance wouldn’t have been a miss.
Thomas Campbell plays our Thomas Magill. He is the town do-gooder, ready to have a yarn with any who comes his way; he will even throw in a friendly piece of advice. One might say that Thomas is creating the world in his own image. Campbell brings great competence and concentration to the role; there is a breadth of movement and depth of field that is wholly comforting. His lyricism flies over the crowd as does the perfect Irish intonation that runs like thick caramel. Campbell is especially impressive as he transitions from the clear, crisp choir boy to the utterly cracked and deeply disturbed tyrant.
It is not uncommon for Irish narrative plays to have one or several people transform themselves into a large cast of characters. Misterman is no exception. Pleasingly, Campbell gives complete and specific life to the various other townsfolk that Thomas encounters: from the jovial Dwain Flynn, really a miserable drunk, to Timmy O’Leary who is lazy and enslaves his lovely mother, and ‘sweet’ Mrs Cleary who is secretly a blasphemous flirt – well, according to Thomas anyway. Campbell is exceptionally clean in his characterizations and produces great comedy and insight as he does. The only thing, for which Campbell might be criticized, is the lack of pity that he elicits from his audience. Thomas would appear to be a product of his circumstances. Whilst certainly unhinged, he is a boy (hardly a man) crying out for help, for some attention. Though the piece would appear to be Thomas’ retelling, the actor must help the audience to go on the character journey too, regardless of whether he has ‘technically’ done so already.
Misterman is an intriguing little play, featuring a standout performance from Campbell. The Old Fitz continues to deliver fresh and engaging theatre, but many people may leave this production with a few lingering questions.
Misterman is playing at the Old Fitz Theatre until the 27th of June. For more information see: http://www.sirentheatreco.com/misterman/