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★★★★ “new form of theatre that includes drama, dance, music and … a powerful dystopian drama … weaving [Walsh’s] closely textured poetic prose into a new form of comprehensive, category-defying theatre.

No Galway international arts festival seems complete without a new play by Enda Walsh.

His latest, set in a suburban seaside leisure centre, deals with Walsh’s familiar themes of entrapment, isolation and imagined worlds. While it may not have the manic exuberance of his brilliant play Ballyturk (2014), it deals with the capacity of love to survive loss and death, and shows the playwright enthusiastically embracing a new form of theatre that includes drama, dance, music and visual art.

The set itself, designed by Jamie Vartan, is like an art installation. It depicts a waiting room of startling anonymity: three plastic chairs, a Swiss cheese plant, a ticket dispenser and a screen displaying illuminated numbers. We could be in a large hospital or an anteroom to hell. In fact, we are in one of the towers that dominate a nightmarish future city where the imprisoned Isla waits to learn her fate. Her only human contact is with a young man who sits in an adjacent control room operating the cameras that keep her under constant surveillance and listening to the stories she invents about the outside world.

Both characters are victims of a tyrannical system, and their attempt to elude it has strong echoes of Orwell’s 1984.

Almost all of Walsh’s plays deal with hermetic fantasists. The big difference here is that they are subject to a dictatorship, and the piece, subtitled “A Love Story”, suggests that the human spirit can withstand oppression. But I found Arlington less fascinating for what it says than for the way it says it. For a start, Walsh is clearly out to demolish the distinction between drama and visual art. A feature of the Galway festival is an installation, written and directed by Walsh, in which we sit in three rooms listening to the recorded voices of their past inhabitants. One of them, in which a woman recalls the family bedroom she quit as a child, is spoken by Charlie Murphy (who plays Isla in Arlington), and is no less theatrical than the staged event.

Walsh is also creating a theatre in which movement exists on an equal footing with text. In Ballyturk, we saw Cillian Murphy leaping on to a high ledge and Mikel Murfi physically evoking the inhabitants of an entire village. In Arlington, we see Isla gliding round the floor to a version of Baby, I Love You with an imagined partner and there is a long, wordless, central section in which Oona Doherty, to Emma Martin’s choreography and Teho Teardo’s music, expresses through movement the fury, frustration, grief and occasional gladness of the incarcerated. Her performance is every bit as pivotal to the play’s meaning as that of both Charlie Murphy as the pent-up prisoner and Hugh O’Conor as a technician caught up in a terrifying world of closely monitored control.

Arlington is certainly a powerful dystopian drama, even if it resorts to a self-sacrificing romantic gesture that Dickens would not – indeed did not –disdain. But when I’ve forgotten the ideas, I shall still recall Walsh’s boldness in weaving his closely textured poetic prose into a new form of comprehensive, category-defying theatre.


Written by Michael Billington for The Guardian 19.07.16