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Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

For a first meeting, it was harrowing. Tom Murphy showed up fairly jolly, ready to knock back a few pints and reminisce about old times. But as he grew drunker, he became bleakly morose, bitterly dwelling on fraught tethers to clan and homeland. Soon, he wanted to fight. Then he cried and talked of death on a national scale. This extremely long (more than nine-hour) day ended in stark tragedy, with Murphy’s ghosts rising up to remind us how class injustice, betrayal and elemental horror are woven into the fabric of Ireland. That’s how I met Tom Murphy, through the Druid Theatre Company’s devastatingly good revivals of Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark and Famine.

Druid’s hugely ambitious and splendidly acted trio spans about 130 years of Irish history and 25 of Murphy’s career, but the concerns are strikingly consistent: Murphy keeps fingering the wound of emigration. Whether it’s a local boy defeated by the world outside County Galway (Conversations), a man from an abusive family having escaped to England (Whistle), or the horrific disaster that catapulted millions of destitute Irish across the sea (Famine), Murphy draws inspiration from the way his nation seems to expel both its best and worst.

You can see why the dramatist—mostly obscure on these shores but revered back home—has been regarded as a major influence for nearly half a century. He takes the essential DNA of Irish drama—alcoholism, fighting, the Church and the Troubles, and molds it afresh. The writing is poetic but gritty, the dialogue sinewy and shrewd. There’s cascading rage and contempt, but plenty of humor as well. Director Garry Hynes and an impeccable cast of 17 handle the different styles and periods with grace and force. At times, Murphy’s scripts evoke Bond, Beckett and Pinter, or they prefigure the moody, heightened naturalism of Conor McPherson.

Conversations is the best of three, a keenly atmospheric study of decayed friendship and envy, in which reunited boyhood chums descend into boozy recrimination and acrid abuse. Whistle is familial Grand Guignol, with a delectably vicious performance by Niall Buggy as a patriarch who sets his thuggish sons against each other. After four and half hours with those two, Famine is a difficult sit. At nearly three hours, this semi-Brechtian history play on the Great Famine of 1845 is gripping but grueling. Hynes takes some stylistic risks with the staging, creating expressionistic tableaux and allowing Murphy's episodic account of death and despair its full, tragic weight. While I am glad to have seen all three plays on the same day, I did leave Murphy exhausted and almost overwhelmed. But, by God, I hope to see him again.—David Cote

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote


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