Thursday, 19 April 2012
Misterman and religious psychopathology
The mental labyrinth of religious psychopathology makes for an unsettling night in the theatre. Using the device of a dramatic monologue, Enda Walsh’s latest play, Misterman, draws the audience into the disturbed mind of Thomas Magill, played with fierce physical and emotional conviction by Cillian Murphy.
Thomas acts out the events that take place during a single day in the life of his hometown of Inishfree, a place twinned in his mind with Sodom and Gomorrah. He believes his divinely ordained mission is to expose the sinful behaviour of the town’s inhabitants and bring them to their knees in an act of communal penance.
On first evidence, Thomas appears to be a young man buzzing with energetic, evangelical zeal. With a breezy desire to do God’s will, he would make a prize catch for many a vocations director. But as his story unfolds, disturbing theological attitudes leak out and clues about his personality begin to emerge. The intensity of his religious experience and the conviction that he is surrounded by human filth and depravity begin to sound menacing notes. The sins of the pelvic region become the especial focus of his disgust.
Thomas’s story is gripping, but it is one that intends to grip you by the throat and squeeze the life out of you. His final, chilling revelation does just that.
Cillian Murphy plays Thomas and all the characters of Inishfree against the setting of a disused warehouse of sputtering neon strips and loose wires. Scattered among the junk and debris are Krapp’s last tape machines - huge spools of sound effects (a dog barking, a door closing) and the voice of Thomas’s beloved “mammy” mithering him for jammy dodger biscuits. Thomas venerates his mammy, although it is a veneration infected with the tapeworm of resentment. The dilapidated, multi levelled set is a perfectly imagined visual metaphor for Thomas’s collapsing, disconnected mind and a life being played out in an infernal loop of feverish missionary activity.
Thomas’s language has a biblical vitality and poetry. His talk oscillates between lofty visions of the transcendent and an unforgiving view of the weaknesses of the human flesh. Theologically, he seesaws between grace and the cataclysmic effects of Original sin, between heaven and hell. There is no middle, theologically nuanced way. He is John Calvin with an Irish accent.
Into this distorted metaphysical world view, steps an angel. The beautiful Adele. She cuts through Thomas’s dualistic interpretation of life and appears to offer him the hope of gentleness and love. Cillian Murphy makes real Thomas’s desperate longing for this hope. It is this desperation that proves his tragic undoing. In Cillian Murphy’s sensitive hands, Thomas never becomes a caricature of the “religious nut,” but is a soul damaged by his past and circumstances, a man seeking healing and certainty in religious belief.
Misterman is a sobering reminder of how our personalities are bound up with particular expressions of religious belief. These can take the form of a psychological reaction to, aversion of and flight from experiences that we have found personally disturbing, painful or challenging.
Religious belief can contain these experiences in an interpretative framework. On the one hand, this can contribute to the development of a healthy, mature understanding of our personal relationship with the God who is love and of his relationship to us. However, there is always a danger that, when cut loose from love, religious belief can become severe and fearsome, a hell where, whether we recognise it or not, the fallen angels of self-loathing and hatred of others reign.