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  • Chris O'Rourke


Domhnall Gleeson in Medicine by Enda Walsh. Photo by Jess Shurte


Despite being the talk of the Edinburgh Festival, there's been too little written about Enda Walsh's Medicine. Yes, it's been hailed as a play about mental health exploring the brutal ways our institutions fail those afflicted, but it's so much more than that. Yes, there's an improvisational jazz component, but there's so much more to it than that. Yes, it features devastating performances from Domhnall Gleeson, Aoife Duffin and Clare Barrett, but they bring so much more to the table than that. Everything written so far barely scratches the surface, often for trying to explain it away. For this metaphysical, psychological, existential monster, engaging with slapstick, sugary drinks, and, heaven save us, musical theatre, will leave you wondering which way is up at times. But go with it and you'll find Medicine an exhilarating, exhausting, emotional rollercoaster if only you give yourself up to the ride.

Clare Barrett and Aoife Duffin in Medicine by Enda Walsh. Photo by Jess Shurte

A rollercoaster that kicks off with lots of laughs as patient, John Kane, a superb Domhnall Gleeson, executes some old time slapstick cleaning up a hall where a party has recently been held. Making it clear from the get-go that while there's some heavy stuff we'll need to wade through, we're going to have some fun doing it. A message echoed by Aoife Duffin's one bushy eyebrow and Clare Barrett in a lobster suit. But things get serious pretty quickly as we discover that Duffin and Barrett, both called Mary, are there to engage with Gleeson in something resembling a twisted kind of Drama Therapy. As if the poor soul hasn't suffered enough. What's worse, they're both musical theatre artistes imbued with an overbearing sense of 'hi diddle dee dee, the actors life for me,' with both being hilarious with it. Those who believe in a God will be convinced Barrett was put on this earth to play Mary, being breathtakingly brilliant as an actor's actor par excellence.

Clare Barrett in Medicine by Enda Walsh. Photo by Jess Shurte

But not everything in Medicine is. Hilarious that is. Beyond the feel good disco songs, the costume changes, the soppy numbers sung by Mary Magdalene and the riotous laughter hides a frail and fragile soul trying to be whole again. It's no easy task pulling off pathos in an absurdly dark comedy without looking pathetic, but Gleeson does it with considerable aplomb, not so much baring his soul as rending it asunder. Met head on by a sublime Aoife Duffin in brief, passing moments that can steal your heart. It might all seem to end in anguish, but in the hands of Duffin and Gleeson it might just be the beginning of healing.

Aoife Duffin and Domhnall Gleeson in Medicine by Enda Walsh. Photo by Jess Shurte

While it's often advisable for a writer to allow someone else direct their work, Walsh again proves the exception to the rule. His decisions impeccable, down to the smallest detail. Teho Teardo's compositions might surface only fleetingly, but they are essential and exquisite. As are the larger details of Jamie Vartan's set, Adam Silverman's lighting, Helen Atkinson's sound and Joan O'Clery's costumes. Throughout, there's ongoing commentary on theatre and theatricality. Walsh is acutely aware of theatre as serious play, and Medicine is all about playing seriously. As such it rarely prescribes directly. Instead, it allows itself to evoke, like its jazz improvisations, impressively realised by Seán Carpio on drums. Less Charlie Parker so much as Evan Parker, Medicine's improvisations don’t just focus on its central melody, though there is that, they improvise on chords, riffs, notes and recurring phrases independent of melody, creating a wild, dissonant cacophony with tenderness at its core.

Seán Carpio in Medicine by Enda Walsh. Photo by Jess Shurte

In Medicine, the lunatics take over the asylum, with Gleeson looking the sanest person onstage. You don’t have to understand it all to love it, but there's every chance you will love it. Even if only for its jaw dropping performances. Go, look, listen; just take what resonates. It might all resonate differently tomorrow. Either way, don't believe the hype. It doesn't do it justice. Medicine never tasted this good.

Medicine, written and directed by Enda Walsh, produced by Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival, runs at the Black Box Theatre, Galway, as part of Galway International Arts Festival

In Person: 2-18 September, various times.

Live Stream: September 15,16,17 and 18, 8.00 p.m.

On Demand: September 20 - 26.


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