‘I thought we knew everything there was to know’ – these lines from Ballyturk are the antithesis to what most experience when watching the 2014 absurdist play from the mind of Enda Walsh. Absurdism is a difficult beast to tackle- requiring a Beckettian balance between nonsense and reason- and yet the Corpus Playroom’s interpretation under the direction of Elizabeth Laurence pulled it off, with intriguing manifestations of characters and sets that make this visit to the Corpus Playroom akin to a perplexing tea party with the peculiar.
The play begins with the mysterious characters 1 and 2, played wonderfully by Mark Jones and Bella Ridgwell respectively, as we see them throughout idly survive in this one room, equipped with the realistic trappings of two struggling flatmates. Like a theatrical Peepshow, our two protagonists simply reside in their mysterious captivity, yet try to find a way to experience what it is to live. They express art, whether by drawings, music, or dramatizations of the elusive town of Ballyturk, like some impromptu art festival in the living room. Indeed, these sudden leaps into the caricatures of the people of Ballyturk are the most impressive parts of the play, with both 1 and 2 adroitly shifting between accents and personas like a character selection screen. These expressions of art, despite being imprisoned for unknown reasons, is the closest thing one can find to a message – that being, as the first reviewers of the play in 2014 put it ‘the dilemma of the writer creating imagined worlds while enduring partial seclusion.’ This feeling of the estranged artist in seclusion is always present in the play, like the fly that pesters 1 and 2, as demonstrated by minor touches to the set, choreography and mannerisms of the characters: Mark Jones does not walk across the stage, they launch themself like a gymnast; Bella Ridgwell does not simply assort biscuits upon the plate at tea-time, but constructs a confectionary ziggurat from them; and the name of the titular Ballyturk has been brightly painted on the wall with a gallery of drawings of the town and its people as a magnum opus.
Soon enough, the warm yellow of the set is invaded by the cold blue light of the plot, as from the outside, another character, 3, enters – played by Kitty Ford – who immediately conquers the stage, divining the room with the presence of what on earth is even going on. With exquisitely delivered monologues and the authoritarianism they convey onto the other characters, the often relaxed 1 and 2 are made to face the truth of why they are in this room and what they need to do which leads to an emotional and satisfying end – which I will not spoil.
There were, however, some moments that could have done with some polish. I adored the moments of silence and physical comedy, where the actors did their routines while the vibes of pop music are interlaced, expressing the relaxed lives of 1 and 2 in their seclusion, creating brilliant chemistry between them. However, the moments of serious dialogue were slightly lacking. With all the moments of silence, the atmosphere is natural and evokes realism, but when the characters sit down and talk for long periods of time, there was some stiffness to it and may have required more direction. Overall, the moments of serious conversations feel more stilted and unrelaxed compared to the more comedic or absurd dialogues. The moments of silence spoke volumes, but I think could have been made ever so slightly longer; letting the silence breath more would allow the serious moments to have even greater of an impact upon the audience and let every realisation sink in.
Ultimately, this production of Ballyturk was a delight to see, and I recommend it to anyone who can relate to the secluded artistry of the characters or otherwise any Cambridge student that knows what it is to feel stuck in the captivity of their own work routine. While requiring some minor refinements, it is nonetheless a unique piece of absurd comedy and drama that intrigues its audience to the very end.