Charlie Murphy in Arlington. Image copyright Patrick Redmond
At the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, there are big shoes to fill, but Enda Walsh is more than up to the demands of being Ireland’s national playwright. From his new kid, 90s hit Disco Pigs to a rather surprising career in musicals (Lazarus, Once), Walsh is marking his own path. Arlington, first premiered in Galway last summer, comes to Dublin trailing a high reputation. It proves to be a remarkable piece – genre-bending, unexpected, compelling, and defiantly experimental. This being Dublin, the audience responded to its avant-garde demands with a standing ovation.
Charlie Murphy’s Isla is held captive in a waiting room – a Beckett state of limbo – where a hidden controller guides draws memories out of her, seemingly to recreate a lost world. The outside is dominated by towers, where terrible things are happening. So far, so distopian, but Arlington breaks free when the pacing, posing Murphy responds physically to the confines of her single room. She attacks the set like a dancer lurching free from her moorings. A mesmerising second act becomes a contemporary dance piece, vivid and intense, danced by Oona Docherty who is an Isla in different clothing. The culmination brings Hugh O’Conor’s security operator, visible in his stage right booth, on to the stage to face the consequences of seeking freedom. The chilly tones of Olwen Fouéré broadcast an interrogation over the airwaves, from an unknown location.
Arlington has the repeated stories of a perfect, lost past found in earlier Walsh plays such as The New Electric Ballroom. It also has a political dimension, which threats just beyond the high window and hints of social upheaval and violent reactions to population pressure. This is a play for the Trump era, but Walsh’s dramatic language has broadened to meet the challenge. His own direction brings not just his own dense and alluring words, but also movement, sound (Baby, I Love You) and remarkable video work, creating at times a set that seems sentient. The title, Arlington, seems to refer to a house briefly glimpsed in a recovered video loop. It also hints at collapsed Victorian city structures, expired social principles, and a political void. Walsh is gearing up for our troubled times, and Arlington suggests he is setting out to define them.