EIF theatre review: Medicine, Traverse Theatre

Enda Walsh’s new play is a heartbreaking yet hugely energising and thrilling journey through one man’s troubled psyche, writes Joyce McMillan
Domhnall Gleeson in MedicineDomhnall Gleeson in Medicine
Domhnall Gleeson in Medicine

Medicine, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh *****

There’s been a party, or so it seems, in the bare hospital room where the action of Enda Walsh’s latest play takes place. There’s a banner bearing the word “Congratulations!”, and a mess of plastic plates and cups, streamers and party-poppers. It’s into this space that Walsh’s central character, John, enters alone, shuffling slightly in hospital pyjamas, and trying to tidy it a little, before the beginning of a session that, it seems, is very important to him.

Next to arrive, in heavy disguise, is a kindly young theatre worker called Mary. Then there’s the drummer, who sits behind his drum-kit in a corner; and finally, there’s the second Mary, an experienced musical theatre actress mysteriously dressed as a lobster. It seems that the business of the next 90 minutes is for John, as part of his psychiatric treatment, to tell his own life-story, including songs, with the help of the two theatre professionals.

Enda Walsh’s Medicine is receiving its world premiere at the Edinburgh International FestivalEnda Walsh’s Medicine is receiving its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival
Enda Walsh’s Medicine is receiving its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival
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And so begins a heartbreaking yet hugely energising and thrilling journey through a retelling of the key traumas of John’s loveless and lonely life; a process which not only reflects on how John was never loved or listened to by his deeply disturbed parents or anyone else, but also embodies that process, as the white noise of job insecurity and wounded ego rattling on in the head of the second and dominant Mary effectively forbids her from allowing John to tell his story in his own way, or from truly hearing him when he does.

Like much of Enda Walsh’s writing and theatre-making, in other words - since his 1997 Edinburgh debut with huge Fringe hit Disco Pigs - this new play offers a surreal and piercing dream-like counterpoint to the hugely positive narrative of recent Irish history. The play was partly inspired by recent revelations about the treatment of patients in Ireland’s psychiatric institutions; and it comes as a stark and deeply poetic reminder of how, under stress, the human capacity for cruelty and cold-heartedness, particularly towards anyone perceived as other, can and will reassert itself, causing untold suffering.

In this superb production by Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival, directed with pace and passion by Walsh himself, the whole meaning of the text is beautifully and bravely teased out by a magnificent cast, featuring Domhnall Gleeson, Clare Barrett and Aoife Duffin, with Sean Carpio as the drummer, and a whole Irish national theatre of famous voices on the show’s astonishing soundtrack. And if the cheap-looking party aftermath at the start of the show is some kind of metaphor for Ireland’s recent history of fun and self-celebration - suggesting its roots may be shallower than they seem - then it’s also clear that a nation that can produce art of this complexity and quality, in trying to examine its recent past and future, will never be at risk of leaving its most troubling stories untold, for too dangerously long.

Until 29 August, www.eif.co.uk

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