Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Review by Mark Brown
Following the grim hiatus of 2020, the Edinburgh International Festival is making a careful and tentative return to stages across the city. In terms of the considerably truncated theatre offering, this means that the flagship play, Medicine, by the acclaimed Irish dramatist Enda Walsh, is being presented (as per Scottish Government protocols) to much reduced, physically distanced, mask-wearing audiences at the Traverse Theatre.
Walsh (the writer of such plays as Disco Pigs and Lazarus, which he co-authored with David Bowie), was the toast of the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe with his blistering, dark comedy The Walworth Farce. His new piece, about the medical confinement of a man who has been diagnosed with psychosis, deserves to be equally revered.
Directed by Walsh himself for Dublin-based theatre company Landmark Productions and the Galway International Arts Festival, Medicine takes place in the gymnasium of a psychiatric hospital. There, in-patient John Kane (played by the outstanding Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson) finds himself surrounded (on designer Jamie Vartan’s excellent set) by the detritus of the previous night’s staff party.
It is an inauspicious start to what is, presumably, supposed to be an important part of his treatment. John (who, it seems, has been “sectioned” and, therefore, incarcerated by the state) is preparing to give his “testimony” to two professionals who have been brought in especially for the purpose of meeting him.
However, in the first of many brilliantly absurd twists, these two are not consultant psychiatrists but a couple of peripatetically employed musical theatre performers, both of whom are called Mary. Mary 1 (the wonderfully explosive Aoife Duffin) arrives from her previous gig in the guise of, not one, but two old men. Mary 2 (Clare Barrett on barnstorming form) is en route to a children’s party, and shows up in a splendid lobster costume.
This conceit is unlikely to be an ironic comment on “drama therapy”. More plausibly, it simply serves Walsh’s imaginative leap into a quasi-surreal situation that reflects the not-so-benign neglect of John’s physical and pharmaceutical confinement. (John, meanwhile, is so institutionalised that he agrees with the external, male voice of authority – which we all hear – that it is correct that he be incarcerated).
Walsh’s past work, The Walworth Farce in particular, has drawn comparisons with the plays of Eugène Ionesco, the father of absurdist drama – Medicine can only serve to reconfirm that perception. As with Ionesco’s plays, such as The Chairs, Walsh’s latest piece is constructed of bleakly funny repetition. Much of the comedy of Walsh’s drama comes in the increasingly violent conflict between the Marys (who, in fact, have the script of John’s testimony in their hands), and in composer Teho Teardo’s fabulously diverse use of music.
However, also as with Ionesco, there is something deeper going on beneath the surface of the humorous game that is being enacted.
The play’s strong, emotional undertow turns to powerful, resonating poetics in a series of Beckett-esque monologues in which John recalls episodes from his past life and lost love. In these moments, Gleeson (of Ex Machina and the recent Star Wars films fame) gives a performance that is nothing short of soul-shuddering.
We have watched John blithely accept the medication that deadens his senses. In the monologues, however, he breaks the hold of the chemical cosh, dredging up years of pain and regret from the depths of his being.
Yes, it’s still very early in the proceedings, but Medicine may well turn out to be the finest theatre production in Edinburgh this summer.
Until Aug 29. Tickets: 0131 473 2000: eif.co.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on August 8, 2021
© Mark Brown