The New York Times
August 28th 2008
EDINBURGH — History repeated itself at the Festival Fringe that drew to a conclusion here on Monday. For the second year in a row the Irish playwright and director Enda Walsh supplied the most intoxicating and original piece of writing with his pitch-dark but tender-hearted play “The New Electric Ballroom.”
Mr. Walsh’s “Walworth Farce,” a sensation at the festival last year in a production from the Druid Theater of Galway, Ireland, was subsequently seen in New York and opens in London this fall. The new play, no less entrancing in Mr. Walsh’s luminous staging for the Druid, deserves an enduring life too. (Following its English-language premiere in Galway — the play was actually first seen in Munich in 2004 — the production was presented in Edinburgh as part of the Traverse Theater’s Fringe season.)
There is a tasty little joke in Mr. Walsh’s repetition of last year’s triumph, for both plays are theatrical riffs on the consolation of going over old ground — whether the tales being retold are actual or fantastical. In “The Walworth Farce” a father forces his sons to enact a wild comic spin on their family history, day after day after day, in a brutal attempt to din into their heads a more comforting alternative to the dark truth of his past, and to insulate them from that cruel universe outside. “The New Electric Ballroom,” which encloses us in a similarly insular world with three sisters recreating a calamitous moment from their long-gone youth, almost seems to be Mr. Walsh’s conscious attempt to write a companion piece from a female perspective, in a more mournful, elegiac tone.
The distaff version does not hit you with the explosive wallop of “The Walworth Farce,” certainly, but its vision is fundamentally truer. It does not conclude with bloodletting and mayhem — those reliably sexy climaxes to fiction onstage and off — but with regret, resignation and a return to the familiar patterns that provide the solace of routine even as they close off the possibility of life offering us anything new.
Breda (Rosaleen Linehan) and Clara (Val Lilley), two sisters on the far side of middle age, live in wary intimacy like two ornery old cats, immured in their house in a small fishing village on the coast of Ireland. Ada (Catherine Walsh), their much younger sister, lives with them too, working as a bookkeeper in the local cannery. Breda and Clara also punched the clock there until vicious gossip hounded them from the building years ago, after a scandalous incident at the dance hall of the title that took place when both girls were on the cusp of womanhood.
The event that gave rise to the wagging tongues has become an obsession for all three, its ritualized recollection filling the gaping hours day in and day out. Breda and Clara take turns rehearsing the fateful day, each from her own perspective, as Ada plays prompter and dresser, clothing her sisters in the old, tattered, festive dresses and luridly colored heels, slashing a scar of bright red lipstick across their mouths. A break in the daily pattern gives rise to anxious twitchings from Clara. “There’s a lull,” she snaps when the story stalls. “Sort of lull that can get you worried.”
Words, in Mr. Walsh’s harsh but illuminating vision, are both the making of experience and its destruction. The cursed gift of speech has been used to isolate and humiliate the sisters. (“Branded, marked and scarred by talk,” Breda scowls. “Boxed by words.”)
Speak we must, of course, as both sisters attest in one of the dense, musical monologues that they recite in turn. “By their nature people are talkers,” they gabble as if by rote. “You can’t deny that. You could but you’d be affirming what you’re trying to argue against and what would be the point of that?” And so talk they do, wrapping themselves in the strange comfort of a sad story that will never end. But can words, the soiling, unworthy but unavoidable things, also be used to build a makeshift bridge to a life-changing connection, a release into a sunlit future? The unfolding of the drama in “The New Electric Ballroom” keeps us on edge as we await the answer, a prickly sense of doom waxing and waning as the sisters move through their ordained roles in a ghoulish, private pageant.I don’t want to reveal much about Mr. Walsh’s plot. An artist so gifted at storytelling, and so deeply besotted with it, must be allowed to strut his own stuff. As in “The Walworth Farce” the intrusion of an outsider into the cloistered family unit — in this case a lonely fishmonger named Patsy (Mikel Murfi) — provides the catalyst for a tear in the suffocating fabric of the sisters’ lives, and the possibility of salvation for at least one of them.
The beauty and humor of Mr. Walsh’s writing flares into unforgettable life in the performances of the superlative cast. Ms. Linehan and Ms. Lilley are both extraordinary. Ms. Linehan’s Breda is gritty, wary and leathered into a gruff dominance, vestiges of her sexual warmth exposed in macabre flashes now and then. Ms. Lilley’s Clara is more frail and shrinking, girlishly preening over her little feet and whining piteously for cake and tea, but with a tongue no less savage than her sister’s when need be.
Ms. Walsh, so fine in the Druid landmark cycle of J. M. Synge plays, reveals the chasms of yearning underneath Ada’s businesslike exterior as the play swings into its stylized last movements. Mr. Murfi provides much of the antic comic relief as the awkward Patsy, who keeps returning to the sisters and their story, a pile of fish his absurd pretense, as if called by fate.
“The New Electric Ballroom” affirms Mr. Walsh’s growing reputation as a contender to take his place in the long, distinguished line of great Irish playwrights. This inspired fable about the inescapable truths of our being that engrave themselves on our hearts kept burrowing its way into my mind long after the shadows fell for good on Breda, Clara and Ada. Mr. Walsh’s tale of those electric moments of experience — a chance encounter, a word of rejection, a cherished romance — that come to define the narrative of our lives has certainly left a singular imprint on mine.