Its title sounds like it could be the name of a twee BBC Two sitcom, but Ballyturk is anything but middle of the road. Enda Walsh‘s 2014 play, revived for Tron Theatre, is an existentialist foray into isolation, purpose and death. While this may sounds morose, Ballyturk is at times very funny and visually impressive.
The play centres on characters known only as One and Two — a nod to their symbolic everyman nature — who live each day repetitively in an enclosed flat that is only slightly more furnished than a large prison cell. Initially, we are presented with a Theatre of the Absurd comedy, with cyclical and mundane activities, nonsensical character exchanges and a pseudocouple at its core. However, the introduction of the mythical town of Ballyturk and its distinctive characters, impersonated by One and Two, establishes an ironically relatable setting more familiar to the audience. When it becomes apparent that One and Two are in fact trapped on stage and that Ballyturk is an imagined town that they are frighteningly immersed in, the atmosphere becomes increasingly unsettling.
Yet amongst this there is physical comedy and wit. Simon Donaldson and Grant O’Rourke command the space and throw themselves into dance and manic behaviour at points. Highlights include their carefully choreographed morning routines to 80s pop and a hilarious scene involving a safe that has the Tron audience in hysterics. Audiovisual effects also come into play with recorded conversations playing ominously through the walls and fascinating projections beamed around the set.
However, a second act reveal that is a standout moment in terms of technical achievement shifts the play to another level of meaning. As a third character, Three (who else?), is introduced, the atmosphere becomes even more chilling. The new Beckett-esque Godot figure, played by Wendy Seager, has an intimidating aura and acts as a wakeup call to One and Two, explicating their situation and confirming what the audience may have already realised about their fictional lives. Three also provides an ultimatum for the original pair, setting us up for an intense third act climax.
Ballyturk is powerful and complex theatre. It asks questions about the uselessness and usefulness of life experience and the difference between thinking about the world and knowing the world. Visually, it maintains our attention, providing us with physical stunts and frenetic acting. It is challenging, though, and packs in a lot of philosophising, particularly from Three. For some it may feel obtuse and a little too much like hard work to make sense of. Nevertheless, good theatre pushes us, changes perceptions and provokes thought, and this is certainly what Walsh achieves.