ABOVE: CILLIAN MURPHY IN MISTERMAN.
Misterman, currently at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO, is among the most unique, intense theatergoing experience an audience can have in New York right now. Written and directed by Enda Walsh, it’s a one-man show, centered on the story of Thomas Magill (Cillian Murphy): an outsider in his small Irish town, with only his mother and his slightly confused but fervently held religious beliefs for company. The show actually boasts a half-dozen or so characters, played variously by either tape recorders set to Play or by Murphy himself, who moves so seamlessly from one character to another that the 90-minute show never lags, even for a moment.
Murphy himself is dizzying to watch: he plays Thomas with a tetchy, kinetic energy, dashing across the giant warehouse stage, and the character’s descent from normal loneliness into madness advances imperceptibly—but resolutely, so that the shocking ending comes to seem completely inevitable. The play, and Murphy, don’t betray too much about Thomas—it’s never completely clear, for example, whether we’re meant to believe he’s a normal man going about his day or whether he’s alone, talking to himself—but it lets on enough to be devastating.
Misterman isn’t a flattering role, necessarily—Murphy, normally very handsome, looks a fright—but it’s a brave one, and a worthy showcase for Murphy’s considerable talent.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: I saw the play last night. It’s amazing.
CILLIAN MURPHY: Ah, thank you.
SYMONDS: I don’t know how you’re awake. [laughs] I think if I had to do that every night, I’d sleep until 1 pm the next day.
MURPHY: [laughs] Well, you’re not far off.
SYMONDS: How much do you, yourself, feel like you know about Thomas? There’s a lot that the audience is left wondering about after the play is done; there are certain very specific details about his life that we know—his father owned a shop, his mother likes biscuits—but some of the biggest things about him are left unsaid. Do you feel like you know all those things about him, or are you coming from a place of ambiguity as well?
MURPHY: Well, it’s interesting; do you want the general or the specific? I guess that’s the question.
SYMONDS: I’m interested in both. I don’t think the play mentions how old he is.
MURPHY: Yeah. That specific age, [playwright] Enda [Walsh] picked 33, the age of Christ, I guess.
SYMONDS: Oh, well, that makes sense. Sure.
MURPHY: But you only see that when you actually read the play. In general terms, [Thomas] definitely is a recognizable type in Ireland. He’s definitely someone who is a bit of a loner, considered harmless, a bit eccentric, a bit odd, exists very much on the fringes. For me, personally, he’s someone who has been through his life lacking emotionally or lacking in an emotional structure in his family, and is kind of calling out for help the whole time, and then latches on very reverently to this religious idea which he only grasps tenuously. He uses the bits that he wants and discards all the bits that he doesn’t, like all religious fanatics—they bend it to their will. I think that if someone had paid attention—without giving anything away, the last three lines of the play are “Nobody’s listening,” and I think that is very clear throughout. He’s going around the town, and his actions are really a just a cry for help I think.
SYMONDS: Right. Also, with the way the play is staged, there’s some room for debate as to whether these things are actually happening to him, or whether it’s sort of motions that he’s going through himself. You don’t have to explain which way it is one way or the other—I think one of the cool things about the play is that it doesn’t—but I am curious how much time you and Enda had together to work all those details out for yourselves.
MURPHY: I’m the same as you; I’m kind of reluctant to prescribe a right or wrong way of interpreting it. There’s definitely a logical and practical explanation for where he finds himself, and then there’s a more metaphorical, abstract version of it as well, so people can take what they want from that. People go one way or the other. For myself and Enda, we did have to work out a logic for ourselves; and the genesis of [the play] is that Enda did this play 15, 16 years ago, and performed in it himself, and then I came to him a couple of years ago saying, “Look, would you want to revisit this piece,” because it hadn’t been put on very much in England and Ireland. And he did, and then he rewrote quite extensively, we both sat around his kitchen in his house drinking tea and trying to figure out a structure for this pain, for this piece. That’s the sort of work I like, generally, in film and onstage, when people can have their own completely subjective interpretations of the work. I’m never one to underestimate the intelligence of an audience; they get stuff and interpret it whichever way they will.
SYMONDS: The role is obviously so physical and, Thomas’s actions are so frenetic, but also deliberate. Can you tell me about the process of blocking the show?
MURPHY: Enda came up with the idea of it being in a massive space [laughs], which, I was initially terrified by knowing that it was a one-man show and I was the only guy on stage.
MURPHY: But because he’s one of my oldest and closest friends and I admire him and trust him so much, I was like, “Okay man, if you think it’ll work, I think it’ll work.” Then what became interesting was it became about Thomas trying to conquer the space and about the space conspiring against him and him having to control, not only what’s going on in his head, but what’s going on in the space around him. We were very clear that it would be a fast-paced show from the beginning; one take of it is that he’s replaying this day in his life, but he’s never actually replayed it in its entirety, and this is kind of the worst dress rehearsal ever. Everybody—dogs and gremlins and whatever—just try and stop him and impede his progress towards the ending. In terms of the blocking of it, we watched a lot of Buster Keaton movies.
SYMONDS: Yeah, I can see that.
MURPHY: And did a lot of push-ups together. [laughs]
SYMONDS: He joined you for the push-ups? That’s nice!
MURPHY: He joined me, yeah. It was a sense of camaraderie. We also had this great movement director, Michael Murphy, who studied at [Ecole Jacques] Le Coq theatre school in France, which is a very famous movement school. He worked with us, and he’s directed Enda’s shows as well. Enda was always very keen about these characters: we can go as big and broad as we want with them, because they’re seen through the mad prism of Thomas’ mind. There is no naturalism that needs to restrain us in the playing of those characters, particularly, so that was very liberating for me. I’d never done that kind of physical comedy or physical acting; when you work in film, it’s very, very minute and all about looks or what the character is thinking, whereas this was trying to convey everything with your whole body, and I really, really loved that.
SYMONDS: It seems like with the other characters, rather than needing to be realistic, they’re types—Thomas has cast them in these certain spaces in his life.
MURPHY: Exactly. I think in reality, for example, that woman in the café, I’m sure she’s probably quite a demure, reserved woman.
SYMONDS: [laughs] A nice lady.
MURPHY: [laughs] But through Thomas’ eyes, she becomes this over-sexualized monster. That was great, to take a normal person who maybe looks at him for too long, and he just distorts that into something mad.
SYMONDS: When you approached the character of Thomas did you understand him to be crazy, or just very lonely and sad? Or both?
MURPHY: I think if you play characters, it’s very important not to ever tag them with any sort of disorder, or diagnose them, or whatever. You have to normalize the behavior to get inside the character. However absurd it might seem, what’s he’s doing—to him, it is normal and it’s the only way that he can keep alive. So, no, I think at the core of this human being is a very wounded, sensitive, well-intentioned person, who, through all the different reasons, has found himself living like this. If you can tap into that, then you can begin to play him with some sort of honesty and fruitfulness.SYMONDS: I’m also interested in the atmosphere Enda imagines for Innisfree, which obviously has such a rich literary history. I know you’re from Cork, which is a pretty big city—did you have any familiarity with that kind of small-town atmosphere? How did the two of you talk through Innisfree?
MURPHY: I think that everyone in Ireland knows this town that we’re talking about here, which is basically one road, there’s a few shops, more pubs than is necessary, and a farming community around that. And every single person knows every other single person—and their family before. Cork is the second-largest city in Ireland, but my Dad’s from a farming community, and my mum’s from a small village just outside of Cork, so I know it well. These towns are becoming increasingly depopulated, the young people have left, and the ones that are left are hanging around with older people and it’s kind of… odd. There are only four million people in the whole of Ireland, so you can imagine how there are some really, really sparsely populated parts of the country. But also very important is that Thomas has never, ever left. That’s the extent of his horizon. He says in the play, “I’ve never seen the attraction of traveling.” So he’s grown up and spent those 33 years living on that one road in Ireland, and it’s become his universe. That obviously must do something to your perspective.
SYMONDS: Or not do something to your perspective…
MURPHY: Well exactly, yeah. Perspective the other way, yeah.
SYMONDS: Do you think that sort of town has remained basically unchanged? You said that Enda wrote the play 16 years ago, and it does seem like a play that exists out of time. Thomas is not talking on a cell phone or anything like that. Do you think that sort of town is kind of preserved in this earlier time?
MURPHY: It doesn’t really have references to a particular time, as you say. And these events, the sort of tragedy in the story, happens quite often in Ireland, which is really sad, but it’s not unfamiliar, and they’re generally in that sort of environment. So I do think it still does exist. And you go to some of these towns in Ireland, not the touristy parts, not the towns that have got money for still speaking the Irish language, but parts of the country that are seriously depopulated and seriously high unemployment and it feels like you’re stuck back in the 1980s.
SYMONDS: I think that exists in certain parts of America as well—but I am curious whether there’s anything about the play that you think an American audience might need more context to understand.
MURPHY: I don’t know. We were very clear not to compromise the language, or the speed at which the characters talk to each other, or anything like that. It appears after talking to the audience members that I have spoken to, and we did a talkback the other evening, there appears to be some sort of universality to it. I think [in] America, there’s a very clear history of loners, kind of spending too much time on their own, and getting fanaticized in whatever way, and then it ending badly. It seems to happen all over the world, so it seems to transfer culturally.
SYMONDS: You were raised Catholic—did you study the Bible much to prepare for the role? Or did you figure you didn’t need to, because Thomas is sort of a cafeteria Catholic who probably wouldn’t himself have read it in depth?
MURPHY: A bit of both. Every Irish person of my generation and earlier, we were raised Catholic and we’d have to learn it in school, we’d to learn the catechism by rote. But the catechism is about the level to which Thomas has risen, he’s never gotten beyond that. And you’re right, I don’t think that he has ever actually studied the Bible. He may carry one around for effect or whatever, but I don’t think he’s ever actually gone into it properly. It is a totally myopic view of what religion is, which is: there’s bad people and there’s good people and there’s no in-between. The Catholic Church is so intertwined with what Ireland is, that it has to have such effect on the psyche of Irish people that it still remains. So we all kind of understand that. Personally, for me, I didn’t feel like I needed to go back, I’ve had enough exposure to that growing up as a kid.
MURPHY: As you say, it’s not like he’s a theologian or anything. He’s got a very shaky grasp on it. But yes, he says it with such conviction that you’ve got to listen to him.