Dublin Theatre Festival 2022: A Whistle in the Dark
James Doherty O’Brien, Sarah Morris, Peter Coonan, Seán Mc Ginley, Peter Claffey, Brian Gleeson and Timmy Creed in
A Whistle in the Dark. Image: Ros Kavanagh
One hallmark of a true classic is its ability to speak to later generations with more than just history. Tom Murphy's scorching A Whistle in the Dark is a true, modern classic. First produced in 1961 and steeped in the hard man economics of the Irish Paddy in England, Murphy's searing indictment of masculinity, especially working class masculinity, still resonates powerfully. The normalised, loud mouth violence of the Carneys, for whom blood is thicker than family, finds its ultimate expression when the family's patriarch, Dada, comes to Coventry with the runt of the litter, Desmond. Who he's determined to hand over to the care of his other sons, the psychotic Harry, the slithery Hugo, the simple giant Iggy, so they can make a man of him. Desmond's only hope being the family's black sheep, Michael, and his English wife, Betty, looking to break the cycle of violence, and in whose house all converge. That's providing Desmond wants to escape, and Michael's up to the task of wresting him free from the allure of the gang.
James Doherty O’Brien, Timmy Creed, Seán Mc Ginley and Peter Coonan in A Whistle in the Dark.Image: Ros Kavanagh
Gang, family, tribe, it's all synonymous in Murphy's taut script. And given that family is the cornerstone of community, there's larger fish being fried other than calculated and casual male violence. Such as the class question of them and us. Yet masculinity is Murphy's primary focus, showing no romance for its illusions of community and manliness, or its disdain for education or difference. Under Jason's Byrne's astonishing direction, this achieves a kind of poetry, like Terence Davie's Distant Voices, Still Lives. Even as it pays a small price for doing so. Byrne's compositionally beautiful framing echoed in Cordelia Chisholm's claustrophobic set. A piece of inspired brilliance, Chisholm's naked house is less a space so much as a metaphor. Sheared of its wall, exposing its hollowed cavities, its tumbledown frailty, its last gasp wallpaper, a faded grandeur lies steeped in squalor. Evoking a post war Coventry, a bombed out building site, a blasted masculinity, or a hollowed out soul detonated from the inside. Reflected in the signature shifts of Saileóg O'Halloran's costumes, suggestive of more than just period pieces. Dara Hoban's depressed lights soaking up the darkness. All cohering into a hopeless space for new beginnings tethered to a dark past. Alas for the typhoon of headache inducing, herbal cigarettes, which serve only to turn you off smoking herbal cigarettes.
James Doherty O’Brien and Peter Claffey in A Whistle in the Dark. Image: Ros Kavanagh
With a sterling cast Byrne makes some strong decisions, not all of which pay off, with characters often resembling archetypes. Which infrequently effects delivery, where some lines feel intentionally played rather than the scene, lending to a stuttering, forced staccato at times. As always, when it comes to men speaking their hearts, alcohol allows them to do so safely by giving them an excuse. A journey magnificently portrayed by Peter Claffey (Iggy), Timmy Creed (Hugo) and James Doherty O’Brien (Desmond), even if Desmond's exaggerated bruise suggests a half made-up clown. A scene stealing Ruairí Heading as the crippled, hanger-on, Mush is also terrific. As is a brilliant Sarah Morris as Betty, both Morris and Betty being some woman for one woman. The complex Betty staring down the barrel of male aggression, recounting devoted women waiting at the door for their men to return from battle. Even as old men sang songs and sentimentalised.
Ruairí Heading, Brian Gleeson and James Doherty O’Brien in A Whistle in the Dark. Image: Ros Kavanagh
None more so than Sean McGinley's infantilising Dada. Who, along with Brian Gleeson, makes some definite choices that, while valid, don't always land as well as they might. McGinley's ex-Garda Dada, more Willie Loman than Lugs Brannigan, beautifully highlights the pathetic patriarch. Which McGinley makes heartbreakingly gorgeous post-intermission when illusions of power are dropped. But pre-intermission, there's no real sense of power, or strength, of dominance or danger. It's all boast, bluster and fawning, and hard to understand why he's feared and revered. Indeed, in a fight with Dada, Loman would likely win on a split decision. Unlike the other loud mouth Harry, who likes to fight dirty. Which sees an invested Brian Gleeson starting high and having nowhere higher to take his anger when it really hits. Strutting around, ha-ing like a ruptured rooster, Harry infrequently topples into strutting like a contestant in Ru Pauls Drag Race, more bitchy queen than bad boy. Granted, there's a point being made, but Gleeson's charmless, psychotic tendencies leave Harry feeling not just one-sided, but lopsided. For when things align, as in Gleeson's thunderingly brilliant scene recounting his humiliation by his brother, you're left gobsmacked. An imbalance not helped by Peter Coonan's brilliantly balanced performance as Micheal, a man of subtle depths and shifting loyalties. Struggling to get out from under the rubble of masculinity where the only thing that matters is the approval of other men. Whatever the cost.
Brian Gleeson, Peter Coonan and Sarah Morris in A Whistle in the Dark. Image: Ros Kavanagh
A message that still resonates today. Made visceral and immediate in what is a powerhouse production. Dada might look like he couldn't punch his way out of a paper bag, but A Whistle in the Dark delivers a knockout punch to send you reeling.
A Whistle in the Dark, an Abbey Theatre Production, runs as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2022 at The Peacock Stage of The Abbey Theatre till November 5.