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
Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear