A Whistle in the Dark
Peacock stage, Abbey Theatre
“If ye were fighting for a job, even! — A woman, even!” These are the words with which Michael Carney admonishes his brothers, the “fighting Carneys”, who see violence as the only way to make their mark in the world. But Jason Byrne’s blistering new production of Tom Murphy’s 1961 play is about more than toxic masculinity and tribal dysfunction. It is a fight for the survival of classic drama in a cultural climate where postdramatic performance and metatheatrical tricks dominate.
[ Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1961 – A Whistle in the Dark, by Tom Murphy ]
Cordelia Chisholm’s cramped box set sits on the small Peacock stage like a vintage TV. A pallet roof and broken brickwork suggest the Birmingham building sites that provide the Carneys with their livelihood, but the real significance of the design lies in its shrunken dimensions, which heighten the claustrophobia of the small terraced house that Michael and his wife, Betty (played by a stoic Sarah Morris), are trying to turn into a home, despite the Carney brothers’ attempts to destroy it.
It would be easy to play the Carney brothers as a type, but under Jason Byrne’s exacting direction the actors distinguish their characters as individuals coping with childhood trauma and social exclusion in discrete ways
It would be easy to play the Carney brothers as a type, but under Byrne’s exacting direction the actors distinguish their characters as individuals coping with childhood trauma and social exclusion in discrete ways. Brian Gleeson is electrically volatile as the “thick lad” Harry; sick of being talked over, he uses his fists to express himself. Peter Claffey’s “Iron Man” Iggy offers his physical stature as compensation for his stuttering ineloquence. Timmy Creed is a gangly Hugo, quick to protect himself by shifting allegiances, quick to cower in the face of real danger. Des (James Doherty O’Brien), emboldened by bloodshed, grows like Christy Mahon from scene to scene. There are moments of insult that jar to the contemporary ear, but for the most part their misogyny seems recognisably familiar even with the 60-year distance.
[ Fintan O’Toole: Tom Murphy documented ‘inner history of modern Ireland’ ]
Playing against his tribe, Peter Coonan’s Michael is the tightly coiled shape of self-discipline, eventually, inevitably, sprung. Seán McGinley, meanwhile, as the Carneys’ father, Dada, is really just another one of the boys, childlike in his constant refusal of responsibility and his unstinting quest for approval and love. McGinley’s Dada is both pathetic and piteous, laughable and also the most menacing of them all.
This is an unapologetically old-fashioned production of a brutal play whose final act continues to be shocking. Not just because of the violence finally unleashed but also for the sympathy Murphy manages to arouse for the daft and dangerous, wild and wounded Carneys.
Runs at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin 1, until Saturday, November 5th, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival