Setanta Murphy

Luke Griffin and Garret Keogh in 'Setanta Murphy'. Photo: Conleth White

Luke Griffin and Garret Keogh in 'Setanta Murphy'. Photo: Conleth White

Luke Griffin and Garret Keogh in 'Setanta Murphy'. Photo: Conleth White

Luke Griffin and Garret Keogh in 'Setanta Murphy'. Photo: Conleth White

Luke Griffin and Garret Keogh in 'Setanta Murphy'. Photo: Conleth White

Luke Griffin and Garret Keogh in 'Setanta Murphy'. Photo: Conleth White

They do not address death directly, yet in Setanta Murphy it is there, floating over this heartwarming dialectic between youth and old age. Cream dust covers hang predatorily above a simple room of a bare wooden table and chair, telegraphing what is to come. In this two-hander, one man shuffles towards a certain death and the other shuffles uncertainly through life. The question the play raises - how to confront death – shines light on another: how to live a life.

Paddy McDonnell (Garrett Keogh) is 90 and despite a life of vigour, lumping slabs of beef around Dublin markets from dawn 'til dusk, his health is on the wane and the bachelor has become increasingly dependent in his descent past twilight. His only attending relation is his grand-nephew, Setanta (Luke Griffin), a young man who sees life through Greek myths but lives far beneath their arc. He comes for chats, empties Paddy's pee bottle, and cooks the odd dinner - with mixed results: “Only you weren't here, I'd have thrown it in the bin,” says Paddy of the boiled veg. But Setanta is troubled: what to do about Paddy? The suggestion of a day care centre is nimbly sidestepped. “There's too many people doing their interfering,” Paddy says of a hissing radiator but clearly dancing around Setanta's attempt to do something.

The action moves from Paddy's home to a hospital and finally to a nursing home. Conleth White uses pools of light to separate each scene and its warmth hints at the bond between the men. The very simple set by Marie Tierney suggests rather than creates the locations, and the inclusion of a very convincing hospital bed leaves you in no doubt as to where you are. The dust covers hovering above and behind are an elegant symbol but constrict the actors to the front of the small New Theatre stage.

The hand-wringing about what to do about Paddy creates a stasis in the play; its persistance rather than a development of the relationship renders this more serial portrait than play, but one of lovely hues and shadow in the words nonetheless. Paddy's words are rarely tethered to its subject, instead they drift off into a pitter patter. His punctuations - “Pooh-paaah”, the lilt of “Okaaaay” reaching up an octave - seem to be balancing some secret internal rhythm, a personal pentameter. Garrett Keogh creates a rich character full of nuance and frank poetic praise of a long life of toil, redolent of Hugh Leonard's Da. An added shift of an eyebrow reveals in a moment not simply the privations of age, but the multi-layered cloak of life lived on his own terms. But he does not soak sustenance solely from the past: when he runs to the phone with his pants around his ankles and laughs heartily, his secret is clear: to live life unbuttoned.

In contrast, Setanta's words are marbles rolling around his mouth. Clunky prose stuffs his cheeks like horse-chestnuts and his awkward metaphors, like “urinary underworld” for nursing home, made me wince. Luke Griffin is lumped with a vague, not mysterious, character but does not add resonance when opportunity arises. For instance, when Setanta makes a discovery about his father, he simply walks off stage and the revelation falls like loose change out of a back pocket rather than with an emotional clatter. This is also an issue of direction. Keogh, who also directs, takes the light from the title character in pivotal situations like this, leaving one wondering why Setanta Murphy is the title of the play. Setanta's main purpose in the play is clear, however, and that is to be confronted with separation and death.

And how that must be confronted is eloquently offered by Paddy as he recalls the old rituals around the preparation of the Christmas pudding; a stir of the bowl by each boy and girl in the family and the difficulty of pulping oranges and lemons. Paddy looks at Setanta directly and reveals the secret to separating pip from pulp. Here he answers the central question of the play while shining a light into the young man's life. Paddy's hand rises up slowly as he describes the immersing of the fruit in water, “Setanta, the pips do float off of its own volition.”

Colm Byrne is an award-winning playwright with productions Off-Broadway, LA and Edinburgh. His current play, Freefall: Heroes on 9/11, will workshop February 2010.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Setanta Murphy by Garret Keogh

6 – 24 October, 2009

Produced by The New Theatre / Bewleys Café Theatre
In The New Theatre

Directed by Garrett Keogh

Set Design: Marie Tierney

Lighting Design: Conleth White

With: Garrett Keogh and Luke Griffin