Following the success of DruidSynge in 2005, Druid Theatre Company pays homage to Ireland’s current unofficial playwright laureate, Tom Murphy, by performing three of the respected dramatist’s plays in a day-long cycle – totalling almost eight hours of viewing time. However, by all accounts, DruidMurphy is well worth the time and money that must be invested to see it. Leaving all reviewers in its wake splurging their year’s ration of compliments, the great effort put in by director, Garry Hynes, and her ensemble cast has made viewing effortless for its audiences. John Olohan, a veteran actor of Druid Theatre Company and winner of The Irish Times’ Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2011, is a part of the remarkable phenomenon that has been keeping arses – from Galway to the USA – firmly planted in their seats.
Upon asking how successfully DruidMurphy makes cultural leaps like that from Druid Lane Theatre, Galway to the Oxford Playhouse, Olohan remarks on how little location changes the performance – barring, he admits, being a little more conscious of the sometimes unintelligible dialect. The reaction to the play is terrific, everywhere; the “Irish psyche” translates far more clearly than the accent.
The combination of Murphy plays chosen by Hynes for this production takes advantage of the paradox that there is nothing more Irish than not being in Ireland and makes emigration the primary concern of the cycle: Conversations on a Homecoming, a young man is greeted with a unreceptive welcome from his hometown after a ten-year absence; A Whistle in the Dark, an Irish family attempt to adapt to life in Coventry;and, finally, Famine, depicting the national-natural disaster of the 1840s Potato Famine, an event that Olohan describes as “opening the floodgate for emigration that never fully closed.”
Murphy, writing in 1968 before the “Great Hunger” horse had been completely flogged to death, tells this story of holocaust in a microcosm – in a village in County Mayo. “Famine is about inarticulate people,” Olohan tells me, “the inability to explain becomes a form of poetic expression”. (After all, victims of real-life tragedies make sloppy soliloquies). The character Olohan plays, Dan O’Dea, functions as a village elder figure who retains a sense of humour in a ridiculous situation. Thousands starve, yet, there is food – just, not for them. Inexpressibly horrific, but it’s a little bit funny. Call it the last point of communication: gallows humour, if you will.
Strangely, though we talk of emigrations old, new and still-to-come, John Olohan remarks that he has never sought greener pastures abroad. He considers himself lucky to have always had work in Ireland. Though his screen credits include Father Ted and The Butcher Boy – making him just a bit-part in Angela’s Ashes away from actually being post-watershed RTE1 on Christmas Eve – he describes his prolific stage work as much more rewarding and enjoyable, delighted to be working with Druid at the forefront of Irish theatre. Clearly, he has avoided the trap, ‘the hostile home (compounded of ingrained attitudes and restrictive structural norms) that doesn’t allows your dreams to be fulfilled’, in which the young dreamers of DruidMurphy find themselves ensnared.