Love, Loss and Laughter
This December, 4 years after its premiere at the Galway Theatre Festival, I had the pleasure of attending the London premiere of Conor Montague’s play, “The Butcher Molloy.”
Montague’s tightly written script carries a powerful emotional punch. On the surface it is about two men, who have been close childhood friends, reluctantly talking. The Butcher Molloy is more searching than that and even though this two-hander is set in a doctor’s consulting room, it is action packed. We meet Martin The Butcher Molloy, and Professor Oliver Keating (Ollie), when Molloy attends Ollie’s surgery. Molloy is very anxious about his health, but Ollie informs Molloy, with excellently timed deadpan humour, that the blood that he thought was in his stools were red peppers. I really admire how Montague, the writer, allows the 2 characters to evolve. I enjoy how the play is sensitively acted by John O’Dowd, who is arresting as Martin The Butcher Molloy, and Conor Montague, who rewards us with an understated performance as Professor Oliver Keating. O’Dowd and Montague peel away the layers to reveal what is really going on; sometimes it is brutal and other times gentle. The pace is finely tuned; you can feel the air shift at key moments in the play.
The Butcher Molloy is shot through with a lot of dry and black humour. Molloy and Ollie laugh at themselves and each other, but they don’t put each other down, it’s very affectionate. They revert to the sort of ease in each other’s company, that they had when they were both hurlers in the County Team nearly 20 years ago. The cleverly written script allows O’Dowd and Montague the platform to show us the closeness which can only develop when you have grown up with someone. They each know how the other is feeling and what they are thinking by: the look in their eyes, a gesture or the slightest change in their facial expressions. O’Dowd and Montague reveal a level of intimacy between heterosexual men which is rarely presented.
The power of Montague’s play isn’t only that the actors make me care deeply about the two protagonists, especially Martin Molloy, but that it gets personal. It triggered painful emotions and reflections about events which have happened to my loved ones and to me. Fortunately for me, the effect is therapeutic.
O’Dowd made me care a lot about how Molloy is struggling to cope with the death of his long-time partner Sarah. At first, Molloy’s apparent openness displays his anger and bitterness about the prolonged suffering Sarah experienced, whilst she was dying of and being treated for cancer. In contrast Ollie is cold and stiff, which his professional persona as a consultant doesn’t provide sufficient explanation for. We realise that Molloy’s repeated visits to Ollie, who was Sarah’s consultant and university friend, are a cry for help. Martin blames Professor Oliver Keating for not warning them how the chemotherapy and treatment against Sarah’s cancer would affect her. Most of all Martin is angry with himself for not having the courage to end Sarah’s life when she begged him to. He witnessed the unbearable pain Sarah had, which gripped her so hard it made her shake, freezing with cold. The pain management issue strongly resonated with me. Martin believes he is a coward for not helping Sarah end her life. He thinks he was motivated by selfishness, because he didn’t want to let her go. He blames Ollie too, for prolonging the extreme pain and suffering Sarah endured, whilst she was dying of cancer. Martin responds by coolly and calmly justifying the chemotherapy treatment, without it Sarah would only have lived a few months instead of 18 months. So Montague’s play raises profound questions about whether it is ethical to continue treating terminally ill people, if the treatment is so harmful to the patient that it leaves them with a poor quality of life, prolongs their suffering and does not cure the illness. As Molloy says we are more humane to animals like dogs and horses, vets put them down in such circumstances.
The Butcher Molloy offers us other major issues to consider. I believe it is also about different types of loss. There is the effect of the loss of a partner, which O’Dowd as Molloy makes heart wrenchingly real, when he describes how he is forced to sleep on the couch every night, as he cannot bring himself to sleep in the bed they shared together. Molloy describes how every time he awakes he can almost hear Sarah stirring and he thinks it was all a dream. Then a pain would hit him deep in his chest. He almost breaks down at this point, it is very raw. Molloy is also wounded by how cancer made Sarah lose her identity due to the memory loss she suffered. As Molloy asks who are we without our memories? He bitterly states that “the cancer took her body, the treatment took her mind.” Montague’s script also deals with the loss of unrequited love, which Ollie had for Sarah. Both actors handle the complexities in The Butcher Molloy with great ease.
The humour in the play is perfectly timed, breaking up the sadness and bitterness, changing the pace and moving it along. Molloy continues to beat himself up about not ending Sarah’s suffering saying “I just pumped her with morphine, she was asking me to put her out of her misery. I didn’t have the balls.” He asks Ollie if he could put a pillow over Irene’s ( Ollie’s wife) head. Without missing a beat Ollie replies viciously “yes I’d put a pillow over that fat bitch’s head.” It is unexpected, shocking and very funny. It also relieves the raw pain evoked by O’Dowd as Molloy. And reveals that Ollie does have strong feelings.
Ollie informs Molloy that he doesn’t have the perfect marriage and family life that Molloy believes he has. So the play is also about the loss of the life Ollie might have had if he had pursued his passions. Montague unveils Ollie’s bitterness, at first blaming his wife Irene for his lost opportunities, who viewed him as an accessory and status symbol. But Ollie quickly admits to allowing himself to marry Irene and consent to the career of a doctor and the lifestyle she wanted as an easy option. He is in huge debt, due to being weak by allowing Irene to persuade him to make expensive property investments in Europe. So he hates Irene and his 2 daughters, who he claims are just like her. Mostly Ollie hates himself for being weak and taking the easy way out instead of following his dreams.
I love the way that Montague, the writer, has used Hurling as a metaphor for the friendship between the two men and their different approaches to life. Ollie confesses to chickening out of taking an important shot during a major County Hurling match, because he was afraid that he would miss and knew Molloy would not. And as Ollie admits, this set the pattern for his life. Ollie has underestimated Molloy, as at the time he knew what Ollie had done. Molloy knew, stepped up and successfully risked taking the shot, marking the pattern for his approach to life. Ollie greatly admires this quality in Molloy, which he knows is missing in himself. It is a quality which Sarah valued and discussed with Ollie when he asked why she had chosen to be with Molloy, a butcher and a star County Hurler. Ollie tells Molloy that Sarah had witnessed Molloy fight the police to defend a friend from being attacked by them, risking imprisonment and doing so when no-one else would help. Sarah had told Ollie that’s why, “when the shit hits the fan I want Molloy in my corner.” Me too. I even hoped that this information would help Molloy come to terms with Sarah’s dying and death and stop him from thinking he is a coward. I also enjoyed how Molloy’s and Ollie’s reminiscences about playing Hurling in the County team transform Ollie from a strait-laced, self-restrained character to someone full of life. Montague’s eyes sparkled and I warmed to Olly. The good humoured banter between the two friends, interspersed with moments of anger and sadness, animated Ollie and Molloy, so that in the end I was rooting for both of them.
I believe there are positive life lessons from The Butcher Molloy:
- Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends when you are hurting, trust them to help you.
- It’s good to have laugh, talk and share memories with close friends, it will make you feel better.
- Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams.
The Butcher Molloy was at The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith on 14 and 15 December 2017.
All photographs by London Writers’ Eclective