Two cardboard coffins, ten pink biscuit wafers, six cans of Harp, a wig, and countless costume changes. . . . Acclaimed Irish playwright Enda Walsh applies the frenetic antics of farce—an inherently British genre—to an Irish immigrant and his two grown sons. Holed up in their grimy London flat, the trio reenacts a peculiar family story on a daily basis, a bizarrely entertaining routine that has the sons attempting (and failing) to impress their overbearing father.
Walsh, who himself emigrated to London, has noted his interest in “very small claustrophobic situations and the effect that the outside has on them and the rules and details of that environment.” He was discussing the world inside Ireland’s notorious Maze prison, which he re-created in the screenplay he cowrote for the award-winning film Hunger (directed by Steve McQueen and screened at the Walker in April 2009)—but it applies as well to the flat in The Walworth Farce, where the father carries out “a strange sort of torture,” as Walsh has said, on his captive sons.
Although the playwright’s expert crafting and his ear for language fit within the well-honed traditions of Irish drama, Walsh is part of a new “Celtic Tiger” generation of playwrights (Conor McPherson, Brian Friel, Martin McDonagh) more influenced by urban dystopias and globalization
than country pubs and in-depth character studies. In Disco Pigs, his 1996 play that became a hit throughout Europe, a pair of club kids screens out the world with their own language; just as the audience catches on, the teens’ relationship crumbles. Similarly, once the underpinnings of The Walworth Farce’s play-within-a-play begin to reveal themselves, a proverbial knock upon the door derails the proceedings. Slapstick collides abruptly with the silence of shock.
A hit in Galway, Edinburgh, and New York, the play is ultimately a story about keeping family dysfunction at bay with family lore. Its sinister side is subverted by a sweetness and even tenderness in the relationships. Walsh, who grew up spinning the same family yarns around the kitchen table with his brothers, says, “I like family stories with characters who we find monstrous or grotesque but who we then begin to like.” But then, he notes, “What if the stories aren’t real? What if they’re actually lies?”
The intensity conjured by this Irish provocateur has connections to experimental performance from American companies such as the Wooster Group and Elevator Repair Service, both of whom have appeared at the Walker. Just as Walsh’s voice—at once poetic and punk, lyrical and exploratory—makes him a kind of bridge figure between experimental work and more traditional plays, his Walworth Farce is the ideal occasion for a copresentation by the Walker and the Guthrie Theater.