Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – until 29 August 2021
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Medicine, Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival’s production for the International Festival at the Traverse, is a troubling, funny, emotionally devastating and brilliantly realised piece of theatre.
In Enda Walsh’s play, Domhnall Gleeson (familiar from several successful movie franchises, but also an award-winning stage actor) is John Kane. A long-term patient in an Irish psychiatric hospital, John is apparently due to take part in some form of annual drama therapy detailing his life.
However, the two theatrical professionals called upon (both called Mary) are originally dressed as an old man and a lobster, while a jazz drummer underscores the action. All of which takes place in a room featuring the detritus of a staff party, featuring 70s disco tracks and lip-synced 60s soul.
Jack’s story is one of neglect, bullying and an all-round lack of love. Yet the lobster-Mary is reluctant to let John tell his story in the way he wants, or even at all.
This sounds thoroughly absurdist, and there is certainly a strain of that running through proceedings. At the same time, however, this is a deeply tragic and troubling story of the effects of a lack of empathy and of institutionalisation.
Gleeson’s performance is an absolute tour de force, encapsulating uncomprehending victimhood, resentment, brooding pain and howling despair – there are a couple of moments that literally are almost unbearable.
The two Marys (Aoife Duffin and Clare Barrett) provide excellent support. Barrett’s more assertive musical theatre performer and Duffin’s more troubled sound technician are at times a classic music-hall double act with jokes at the expense of theatrical professionals, at other times a frightening portrayal of dysfunction and power trips. Both also display an admirable command of physical comedy.
There is an element of comic desperation here that is recognisably (although not uniquely) Irish. Comparisons to Beckett do no-one any favours, but there are certainly tips of the hat to more than one of his works here, and Walsh’s script is more than capable of standing up to the comparison.
His direction is equally impressive. Jamie Vartan’s excellent set, a sports hall that has seen better days, is utilised to the full, and Helen Atkinson’s sound design is notably strong. Seàn Carpio’s insistent drumming provides a counterpoint to the music of Teho Teardo that is alternately expressive and deeply worrying.
At times the onstage action is subdued and downbeat, at others shatteringly intense, but at all times it is handled superbly. There are questions about how much of it is happening inside John’s head and how much outside, but this is fundamentally unimportant. Either way it has a theatrical impact that is rare indeed.
Domhnall Gleeson with Aoife Duffin and Clare Barrett in Medicine. Pic: Jess Shurte
One of the concerns on display is undoubtedly that vast numbers of people are unable to be heard, or to have their story framed in a way that they can control – which is as true of the theatre as elsewhere, and even more so in the current climate. When the word ‘freedom’ is being recast merely as the freedom to endanger others, it seems that the empathy and love Walsh’s characters are crying out for is in even shorter supply.
Normally a review like this would end with a call to see the play. Since the entire run is long since sold out (due partly to the EIF’s solicitous distancing requirements) there is little point – although the livestream will be available to view online from the Galway International Arts Festival in September. Any opportunity to see this visceral production, with or without a Hollywood box-office draw, should be seized.
To paraphrase Brian Clough, this may not be the best play at the festival this year, but it’s probably in the top one.
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes (no interval)
Part of the Edinburgh international Festival
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge St, EH1 2ED
Wednesday 4 – Sunday 29 August 2021 (not Mon 9, 16)
4-8, 11, 13, 15, 18, 20, 22, 25, 27 Aug – 8pm
10, 12, 14, 17, 19, 21, 24, 26, 28 Aug – 2pm
29 Aug – 6.30pm
Information and tickets at https://www.eif.co.uk/events/medicine (although run is now sold out)
Watch via Livestream at Galway International Arts Festival.
Wed 15 – Sun 26 September 2021
Daily (not Sun 19): 8pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.
The Script is available from Amazon:
Aoife Duffin in Medicine. Pic: Jess Shurte