Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Epic tales of Irish emigration: on tour

By Paul Slade

Three Tom Murphy plays about Irish emigration opened this week at London’s Hampstead Theatre, where they will play for the rest of June before moving on to dates in America and Ireland.

The three plays, produced by Galway’s DruidMurphy company, are Conversations on a Homecoming (1985), A Whistle in the Dark (1961) and Famine (1968). They’re directed by former Abbey Theatre artistic director Garry Hynes, with a cast including Niall Buggy, Aaron Monaghan, Marie Mullen, Marty Rea and Eileen Walsh.

Murphy resists calling the plays a trilogy, but says the theme of emigration runs through all three. “I come from a very big family, and eventually, there was just my mother and myself left,” he tells Colm Toibin in the Hampstead’s programme. “Everyone else had emigrated.

“It was just the beginning of the Second World War. I remember my eldest brother leaving – we didn’t see him for 20 years, and so he became a mythic figure in my imagination. But nearly everybody’s family in the west of Ireland was decimated by emigration.”

Conversations on a Homecoming listens in on the chat of an Irish pub as the drinkers await a visit from an old friend who fled to America many years ago. “A returning emigrant comes home for refuge, but he doesn’t find it,” Murphy says. “I think it’s a hopeful play, because he’s lost some false illusions he had about the place.”

A Whistle in the Dark moves the action to Coventry, where we watch Michael Carney’s confrontation with his thuggish criminal family. ‘You have a family uprooted, at war with the adopted country, and eventually at war with themselves,” Murphy says. This is Murphy’s best-known play, and a clear influence on Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, which followed three years later.

Famine deals with the potato blight of the mid-1840s and the exodus it caused, but with more recent issues too. “After I’d done all this research, I had to ask myself am I a student of famine, or am I a victim of it?” Murphy says. “Famine was a good way to write about poverty in the 1950s and the poverty of thought.”

All three plays will be staged in London, New York, Galway, Oxford, Dublin and Washington between now and the end of October. Cork, Clifden, Inis Mor, Inis Meain and Tuam all stage either one or two of the plays. DruidMurphy has a full schedule here.

Paul Slade, IGN’s theatre correspondent, will be seeing the three Murphy plays at the Hampstead, London, on June 30, when we’ll carry his full review here. Follow Slade’s regular London theatre reviews on Twitter @PlanetSlade.