The critic Terry Eagleton once observed that Irish fiction was “full of guilty secrets, divided identities. It is no wonder that there is such a rich tradition of Gothic writing in a nation so haunted by history”.
If Eagleton were looking for a prime example, he could always cite ‘The Walworth Farce’ – Enda Walsh’s play currently undergoing a revival in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre as a vehicle for Brendan Gleeson and his sons, Domhnall and Brian.
Walsh’s play is a jet black comedy about a Corkman and his two sons who perform the same farce every day in their grotty London flat to an audience of just themselves.
Brendan Gleeson’s Dinny and his sons, Blake and Sean compete every day for an acting prize which the father always awards himself.
The madcap farce they perform is a wild reinvention of the events in Cork that led them to London and Dinny is the star of his own show.
Domhnall Gleeson’s Blake and Brian Gleeson’s Sean adopt several roles during the play within Walsh’s play – the former takes on all the female parts and the boys frantically change costumes throughout.
However from the start of this particular performance, it is clear the family’s production is doomed because Sean has returned from his daily 10am shop in Tescos with the wrong bag of groceries which are always used as props.
So instead of bread, they have Ryvita to contend with and instead of chicken they have to make do with blood sausage.
This infuriates Dinny and as Walsh’s audience delves deeper into the madcap fictional world he has created, it reveals terrible, disturbing truths about the past.
These spill out when Leona Allen’s shop assistant, Hayley stumbles upon the family performing their play.
Walsh’s play satirises the tendency of the Irish abroad to be sentimental about their homeland and mythologise – a point director Sean Foley rams home in this production with blasts of tunes on Dinny’s battered tape recorder such as John McCormack’s version of ‘The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee’, Bing Crosby’s ‘Toora Loora’ and the Wolfe Tones’ ‘A Nation Once Again!’
In Dinny’s eyes, Cork is the shining jewel in Ireland’s crown that should have been its capital.
He is also the cunning hero of a world where greedy relatives try to swindle each other out of their family inheritance.
From the moment the audience sees Dinny in his blue suit, mustard shirt and orange tie leap out of his wheelchair to prepare for the day’s performance, it is clear not everything is going to be as it initially seems.
The story Dinny has created is a warped fantasy that distorts the past. It is corrosive and it is used to imprison his sons.
In the hands of less experienced and less talented actors, ‘The Walworth Farce’ could be an absolute disaster – coming across as pretentious and forced.
Walsh’s play is packed with references to Samuel Beckett, JM Synge, Tom Murphy, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ and especially, Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’.
It is also hugely demanding of its audience and cast – switching tone and pace at breathtaking speed.
Luckily, the Gleesons and Leona Allen know how to keep the ship afloat.
It is a measure of their skill that each actor gets a chance to shine and no-one dominates.
Brendan Gleeson’s patriarch is a bit of a monster and he brilliantly treads the tightrope between a cartoon Corkman and Josef Fritzl.
As Blake, Domhnall Gleeson runs around the stage in various ladies’ dresses which barely conceal a garish pair of orange y-fronts but behind the physicality – the contortions he performs as he shaves his legs are eye popping – there is an extremely subtle and disturbing performance.
As the most contained member of the family, Brian Gleeson’s Sean appears the most sane of the three but as the show progresses, we get a strong sense of just how damaged his character is.
And as the sweet natured outsider who gatecrashes the family’s weird world, Leona Allen is an absolute delight and more than a match for her more famous fellow cast members.
Occasionally, Foley’s production threatens to sag under the weight of Walsh’s ideas – particularly in the first half.
But it more than compensates for it with a second half that manages to be both funny and macabre.
Walsh’s play feeds off the same ghoulish and caustic sense of humour as the ‘Leenane Trilogy’ and as you leave the theatre, you are left with the same sort of awkward questions that Martin McDonagh poses about Ireland and the Irish sense of identity.
For every laugh, there is a disturbing jolt and as you leave the Olympia, you cannot help feeling Brendan Behan might have been right: other people have a nationality, the Irish have a psychosis.
(‘The Walworth Farce’ runs at the Olympia Theatre until February 8, 2015).