Review: Misterman

 

Misterman (at the National Theatre until 28 May) starts sweetly enough. Cillian Murphy (star of Solar, 28 Days Later) rattles manically round a disused warehouse which is decked out with strip lighting, bare bulbs, junk. Doris Day sings “Everybody Loves a Lover,” creamily soft, like a pat of butter. There’s a bit of physical comedy: he can’t turn the tape off!

OK, maybe this man-child is just a little too exuberant. Whoa - and really sloppy with his props. Violent, even. Things get thrown about the place; later, as Misterman Thomas Magill reenacts conversations with his fellow townsfolk, there’s an unhinged carelessness to the way he pours tea, which splashes over furniture and floor.

Writer Enda Walsh takes your Irish dinky pastoral and smashes it to bits. The smithereens mosaic into something altogether harder and harsher. In your face, Ballykissangel.

This garage-space is full of reel-to-reel tapes (Beckett fans will note the debt to Krapp’s Last Tape), which Thomas uses to play the other half of conversations and the FX of daily life, and especially a barking dog, recorded in his hometown of Innisfree. He cues in the sounds and voices, corrects himself (sometimes the tape corrects him). The show that Thomas is putting on is clearly a long time in rehearsal. We gradually understand that he will be rehearsing these scenes, which all relate to a single day, for a long time to come. The debris filling the garage could be the jumble in his own head: areas (like the cluster of crucifixes) light up as though neural pathways have been activated.

The populace of Innisfree (Murphy broadens his accents and acting style to do “types”) are a banal and self-interested lot, who struggle to talk of anything beyond the commonplace. With that special Irish ear for the surreally comic in the everyday, Walsh has them make statements like, “there’s a great honesty to the milk of magnesia".

Murphy’s voice has the piping squeak of a breaking one; his clothes are ill-fitting and filthy. The film star jawline and head have sprouted hair - just those charged blue eyes laser right to the back of the stalls. He’s tested to his limits in impersonating the town’s inhabitants, and miming encounters with them. He has fights with invisible assailants, or uses props for people: unnervingly his “Mammy,” whose back he’s massaging with Vick’s, is a table. His is a performance that burns with zeal.

Thomas, who is “touched” (but not necessarily by the divine), senses that there is something beyond all this. He has visions, walks with angels, feels God’s immanence. He’s God’s conduit and recording angel, with a tape deck slung round his neck. One neighbour shows “immodesty". Another is “indecent". “Fuck you and your fucking words,” says one, to Thomas. But his own language is as restricted as theirs: it’s a schoolboy catechism that he spouts, and a pollyanna Garden of Eden he seeks, where apples “pop into life".

From Genesis we hurtle to Revelations, and from recording to avenging angel. His brutal encounter with the Roger the dog - the tale could have been rewritten as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Daytime - prefigures a still more savage act of retribution. The soundscape collapses in on itself - Doris Day’s buttered tones surface again, then are supplanted by a mangled Toploader (“Dancing in the Moonlight”) at the local community centre dance.

Here Thomas straps on a pair of wings, spits bile at the townsfolk/us, and confesses his dark deeds from the gantry. Murphy takes his lunacy up a notch.

Misterman’s not easy listening, or watching. There are periods where an andante lyricism stalls to largo. At others it’s a little like being repeatedly lashed with rosary beads. The play’s perhaps too fixed on inter-textual chat with Beckett and Yeats to speak very clearly to us. It also places enormous stress on Cillian Murphy, the lone performer; a lesser man would have lost us. 

 

Cillian Murphy in Misterman. Credit: Catherine Ashmore
Getty
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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times