a nerveless expedition into new stylistic territory

I previously noted Tom Murphy’s new play Alice Trilogy at the Royal Court Theatre in London. In The Irish Times today Fintan O’Toole reviews the play, noting the decision to premier in London, with Juliet Stevenson in the title role – “a marvel of heightened alertness and quicksilver mobility” – and Murphy’s “nerveless expedition into new stylistic territory.”.. and he’s pleased too.

It is not just that there are echoes of Beckett in Alice’s internal monologues, but that Murphy has sloughed off so much of what has made him great and looked around to see what is left to build on. He brings just two things to the newly levelled ground: language and acting. And he brings them together.

The review from Fintan O’Toole in full

Alice Trilogy at Royal Court, London

The epic era of Irish theatre is over. The big cultural and social conflicts that buttressed the dramatic architecture of the generation of playwrights that emerged in the late 1950s are now resolved or in abeyance. What remains is a fragmentary, evocative, angular approach in which grand narratives and tragic clashes are replaced by more personal and – in a literal sense – eccentric visions. What is truly remarkable, however, is that the great figures of the passing era, Brian Friel and Tom Murphy, have chosen, almost half a century after they began to write, not to mourn what is gone but to explore the new territory with undiminished courage. Murphy’s new play – his first London premiere since 1961 – is a nerveless expedition into new stylistic territory.

The decision to unveil the play in London marks a breach with the Murphy canon. Were it not for the characteristic soundscape of Murphy’s dialogue, with its unmistakable fusion of the staccato and the baroque, it would be hard for anyone familiar with his work to identify it as one of his plays. Everything else is not just uncharacteristic but utterly different.

Murphy’s classic plays are intensive and unified, typically unfolding over a short time-span on a single set. Alice Trilogy is divided and extensive: it captures its heroine in three different places over the last 25 years. The protagonists of the old plays search for transformation; Alice stays pretty much the same. Those plays were plugged into both Irish social conflicts and to a larger narrative superstructure, drawn from Greek tragedy, fairytale, folklore, religion or myth. Alice’s story does have some sense of an Ireland reaching material prosperity, but it does not seem to have a shaping myth.

These are huge changes, and admirers of The Gigli Concert or Bailegangaire will probably experience them as losses. There is a downward shift in scale, for while Alice Trilogy actually has a larger cast than either of those plays, it feels much smaller. This is partly because of its episodic structure, but largely because it happens essentially in the mind of its protagonist, who describes herself in a moment of self-contempt as a “stupid housewife” with three children, married to a rising bank official in an unnamed Irish town.

Even while noting the losses, however, it is impossible not to admire the courage. No one could ever have called Tom Murphy a minimalist before, yet he claims the term here. It is not just that there are echoes of Beckett in Alice’s internal monologues, but that Murphy has sloughed off so much of what has made him great and looked around to see what is left to build on. He brings just two things to the newly levelled ground: language and acting. And he brings them together.

Alice Trilogy is much more a score than a text. This has always been true of Murphy’s dialogue, but it is far more radically so here. Most of what Juliet Stevenson’s Alice says is not for the purpose of communication. It is spoken to herself. In the first act, she sits drinking whiskey before she sets out to collect her kids from school, talking to an interlocutor (Derbhle Crotty, who is very good here and stunning in the last act when she has almost nothing to say) who clearly does not exist outside of her own head. In the second, she meets up with her first boyfriend, now a famous TV presenter (a supple concoction of charm and menace by Stanley Townsend), but this too may all be in her mind, and in any case they address images of each other rather than real presences. And in the third act, Alice waits at an airport with her husband for the body of their dead son, but they occupy separate dramatic spaces: he sits and eats while she talks aloud, mostly to herself and us.

Her speech in this last section is almost like a set of spoken stage directions in which she describes herself and her situation largely in the third person. Writing and acting are completely fused, pointing to Murphy’s search for an almost pure theatre in which the play becomes entirely about the performance. Juliet Stevenson has the guts and the genius to rise to this challenge. The wandering of her accent between Dublin and the north of England does hinder the flow of the language and the pacing of Ian Rickson’s otherwise flawless production sometimes swallows the bitter comedy of Murphy’s writing. But Stevenson is still a marvel of heightened alertness and quicksilver mobility. Her face, eyes, hands, voice and attitude are in such wonderful flux that her performance achieves a weightlessness that perfectly matches the bold gesture with which Murphy shrugs off the expectations generated by his past achievements. Fintan O’Toole