Misterman review (Old Fitz Theatre, Sydney)

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Enda Walsh’s 1999 one-man play Misterman sees the devoutly religious outcast Thomas Magill (played by Thomas Campbell in this production) re-enact the story of a short period in his hometown, the quaint but dangerous Irish village Inishfree. 

When we first meet Thomas, we’re in a nondescript dark space, full of old reel-to-reel tape recorders, Fanta cans and some old curtains. He goes to the corner of the room, fries himself a single egg and eats, while checking that all is in place for the coming ritual. Using a microphone, simple lighting and the tape players, Thomas tells the story of the tensions between himself and the occasionally less-than-godly people of Inishfree.

He keeps a notepad on his person, which he uses to record their transgressions, and regularly gives them lectures on how they’re falling short of god’s image. Soon enough, those tensions boil over into something violent.

It’s not entirely clear how he came to be in this room or why he’s reenacting this story, although it seems very clear that he’s done this many times before, and will continue to do so well into the future. There’s something almost Beckettian about this situation, but the story which Thomas tells is a fairly classic, clear and straight-forward narrative.

On the tape players are sounds and voices straight from Inishfree (including his Mammy, voiced by Deborah Galanos), but Thomas himself embodies many of the characters as the story goes on. At the centre of the tale is Edel (voiced by Briallen Clark), who shows an interest in Thomas that nobody else in the village has.

Walsh’s words feel almost poetic in their impact although they’re mostly very simple and straight-forward. The plot turns just a little too quickly in the final scenes without laying the necessary groundwork, but this production, directed by Kate Gaul, is perfect in almost every regard.

There’s one particular sequence when Thomas begins to tell his story through a microphone while the lighting comes to glorious life and Campbell breathes out the words in one steady stream. It’s an absolutely stunning moment of theatre, where all the elements combine in the tiny theatre to create something unexpectedly moving and overwhelming.

Gaul has pulled together every element with a sensitive hand, including Nate Edmondson’s creeping sound design, which pours out of speakers all throughout the theatres, and Hartley T A Kemp’s lighting. And I never expected that I’d see it rain in the Old Fitz (unless the roof sprung a leak), but there’s a theatricality to Gaul’s take on the work which demands it.

Campbell is so at home with the material that it feels like he’s been practicing this ritual for at least as long as his character. It’s a performance which is full of warmth, but is also brittle and furious. And his vocal and physical transformations are truly impressive as he takes on the various residents of Inishfree.

But it’s the connection between Campbell’s performance and Gaul’s vision which makes for a rare and compelling theatrical experience. This is a spectacular production with a spectacular performance which shouldn’t be missed.

Misterman is at the Old Fitz Theatre, Sydney until June 27. Featured image by Diana Popovska

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