The Druid theatre company comes to Oxford from Galway, Ireland, on a tour which will take the company to London and America. They are performing three plays by acclaimed writer Tom Murphy, which have been rarely performed in recent years.
The cycle of plays incorporates Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark, and Famine. They are not a trilogy, but span three decades of the author's work, making an informal set united by theme, tone, and the daring way they examine the Irish experience from the famine into the new world of the 1970s.
Conversations on a Homecoming takes place in a pub in County Galway in the 1970s. Local boy Michael has returned from New York for a visit, and during a stout-soaked evening he catches up with old friends, reflecting on the past and the decisions they have each made. The hopes and aspirations of Michael clash with the bitter realism of Tom, a struggling, underachieving writer, and the material success of businessman Liam. Murphy's trick here is to take one setting and one set of characters, and enthral the audience. The atmosphere in the bar room veers from good natured and cheerful, to violently aggressive and back again.
Seething with the threat of violence, A Whistle in the Dark takes place in 1960s Coventry, where Irish immigrants are seeking work. Michael Carney is trying to escape his upbringing and better himself. But his father and brothers treat his aspirations with suspicion, and only respect a man who can fight. They are currently fighting an ongoing war with the O'Brien family.
The violence of the play still has the power to shock even a modern audience. Its descent into brutality is inevitable. In it we see common themes from all three plays: the desire to escape one's background, and the ties which always pull us back. Niall Buggy steals the show in this play as the oppressive father, who must face the serious consequences of how he chose to raise his sons.
The third play, Famine, looks at the potato famine of 1846. We know the ending won't be happy, but the journey towards it raises questions of responsibility, and the endurance of human integrity. It is a portrait of a community, and its breakdown. Unlike the previous plays, the set is sparse, bleak, and minimal, its colours and textures evoking the dirt of the fields.
The plays are increasingly ambitious, and paint their stories on different sizes of canvas, with Famine the biggest, and Conversations on a Homecoming the smallest. However, no matter what the setting, Murphy takes on the big themes with devastating effect. In a sense the plays are not comparable, for they take quite different forms. The production quality is high, the acting seamless, and the overall impression wonderful. The plays' content is not for the faint hearted, but this is powerful, twentieth century drama at its best.