Last updated: April 21, 2012 12:31 am

Misterman, National Theatre (Lyttelton), London

The combination of small, solitary actor and cavernous stage is apt for Enda Walsh’s mesmerising study of madness

The idea of a one-man show on the National’s vast Lyttelton stage seems rather absurd. But in Cillian Murphy’s stunning performance, it makes perfect sense. Murphy fills the stage with manic energy, darting from wing to wing, suddenly hurtling into the depths, or climbing to the top of the set. Moreover his character, Thomas Magill, a lonely misfit and religious fanatic in a small Irish town, packs the lonely space with a cast of voices from his head, as he re-enacts a fateful day in his life. In Murphy’s brilliant delivery, the combination of small, solitary actor and cavernous stage is apt for Enda Walsh’s mesmerising study of madness.

As in Beckett’s work, we come across Thomas as he begins on a ritual that is perplexing to us. In Jamie Vartan’s looming and unsettling set, he appears to have customised a disused warehouse with props to see him through his story. On old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape-recorders, various voices and sound effects from his life pop up at the touch of a button. Gradually, the spine of the narrative emerges, as Thomas’s obsessive mission to clean up local sin comes to a violent head on the day he re-enacts for us.

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Walsh, who also directs, explores familiar dramatic territory: that of characters reliving a crucial episode whose consequences they are unable to escape. But his play draws on Ireland’s socioeconomic problems and its religious and cultural heritage. It deliberately references other Irish writers, particularly Beckett (the tape recorders an obvious nod to Krapp’s Last Tape). Thomas is a disturbed Everyman, spinning his own story out of this messy baggage.

Walsh ingeniously creates a dramatic environment that fuses external and internal worlds, so we feel that we are all rattling about Thomas’s damaged psyche. But he also brings his own twists – a dark, knockabout comedy among them. Murphy, in his bravura performance, can be unexpectedly funny as he ricochets from moments of beatific calm to frenzied and messy action. But, as his character buzzes about, propelled by a logic that only he understands, he becomes an increasingly distressing sight. An unforgettable performance.

4 stars

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