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
WILDSCOTPHOTOS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
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That’s no moth, it’s a wisp of delight on the wing

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors.

Many years ago, I was a volunteer moth-hunter. I wasn’t a collector (I’ve always been puzzled by the impulse to capture a live creature, gas it and then pin its motionless corpse to a board); I was just another helping hand for a number of surveys aimed at estimating the variety and size of local populations. At the same time, I was working at one of Cambridge University’s zoology field stations, an idyllic smallholding just off the Huntingdon Road, where my boss, Gerry, bred cockroaches, locusts, tobacco moths and other insects for study purposes.

I was the merest factotum at that facility, a rather feckless boy taken on to tend the gardens and glasshouses, but Gerry did his best to include me in the more interesting work, including his daily, highly security-conscious visits to the tobacco moths, which were kept under dark netting in a double-walled building within the complex.

At that time, as I recall, you needed a letter from the head of zoology to hold a key to the tobacco moth house, and government documentation was required by anyone seeking  to transport the creatures – because tobacco moths are potentially devastating pests of any commercial crop that belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshades) family; and because these include potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, we had to be extremely careful not to release these insects into the wild. For me, however, they were a source of wonder and a dark, almost Gothic pleasure.

An even greater source of wonder was to set up a moth trap and count the various species that drifted into the light – necessary work to estimate loss of species, changes in distribution and migration patterns. (Some moths – the hummingbird hawk-moth, for instance – can travel very long distances.) Moth losses rarely get the column inches reserved for birds or butterflies, but 62 British species in total became extinct during the 20th century and a further 81 are gravely endangered.

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths – gorgeous creatures such as the orange upperwing, the bordered Gothic, the Brighton wainscot and the stout dart – have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors. At the same time, species that have never been recorded before in these islands are taking up residence in parts of southern England – a sign of climate change, perhaps.

I am not an entomologist, nor have I ever been one. Nevertheless, insects – especially the larger moths – have brought me a great deal of pleasure over the years. Even the names are cause for delight. “Garden tiger” and “snout” are self-explanatory, but who came up with “Brighton wainscot” for an exquisitely beautiful creature that looks like nothing so much as a tiny bride in her wedding gown, or “Clifden nonpareil” for that astonishing specimen whose underwing – a very dark blue, fringed with silvery white and streaked all the way across with a sky-blue stripe – is actually a defence mechanism, startling any predator that might descend upon it with a riot of unexpected colour?

Meanwhile, even though many of the nocturnal moths are subtler in hue, there is a delicacy to them when in flight – the faint, sometimes tiny wisps of what might easily be myrrh or chrism on the wing – that makes a night in the woods all the more enchanting. Back in my surveying days, they seemed so abundant that I didn’t mind watching the one bat that would circle the street lamp outside my window, picking the papery morsels from the warm glow of it.

Now, though, I worry: the losses of these magical creatures have come to seem too much to bear, especially as the reasons for their extinction – loss of habitat being the main culprit – could be so easily avoided.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism