Valhalla

Paul Murphy
Theatre503 in association with Sheer Drop Theatre
Theatre503

Paul Murphy as the unnamed Man Credit: Jack Sain
Carolina Main and Paul Murphy as the unnamed Man and Woman Credit: Jack Sain
Carolina Main and Paul Murphy as the unnamed Man and Woman Credit: Jack Sain

Valhalla is a two-hander that raises serious questions about medical research, the effects knowledge about genetic make-up can have and different gender priorities presented in the context of the developing distrust between a couple who go on a break from the city.

They are a medical research scientist wanting to concentrate the final stages of his work on a cure for a virulent pandemic and his GP wife who is taking time out following a traumatic experience during some recent riots.

The staccato dialogue seems very naturalistic as they plan their escape to a countryside with clean pure air and volcanoes but designer Katie Lias’s clinical setting is an abstracted background, a room with one door, mirrors instead of windows, a column of small lockers and minimal furniture. A table is moved and props repositioned between the short scenes that pack four acts into 89 minutes but there is nothing to indicate location or length of time lapse in the blackouts after their rather arbitrary endings.

Each act begins with a word projected onto the set wall. At first I took these to be geographical place names. But they’re not. I missed the clue in the play’s title. They are the names of the different worlds in Nordic mythology.

Act 1 is Midgard (Middle Earth) where humans live. Act 2 is Helgafjell (Holy Mountain) a place for a comfortable afterlife drinking round a warm hearth. Act 3 is Naströnd (Corpse Shore), the afterlife world for murderers, adulterers and oath-breakers. Act 4 is Yggdrasil, the Great Tree which connects all worlds together and where the gods assemble—but also the tree where Odin hangs himself.

Such indications suggest a less literal interpretation of events than appears on the surface to match the direction the play takes as the woman claims, in a place where no one else lives within miles, to have met two women. They have the names of Nordic goddesses Frejya and Gróa and the woman now repeats incantations in a language in which she previously couldn’t even pronounce the name of the nearest volcano. It adds another level to the woman’s growing distrust of her husband.

Something is wrong. It seems this man who thought he was about to become a scientific hero isn’t going to Valhalla after all. There are revelations of stark and violent realities as the tension between them becomes increasingly antagonistic with a dangerous and disturbing denouement.

There are powerful performances from Carolina Main as the Woman increasingly becoming less the individual character and more an embodying of the female life force and Paul Murphy as the Man, taking over the role at very short notice yet delivering a layered characterisation of a man not wanting to face the truth even though playing book in hand.

As dramatist, he packs in more ideas than can be easily absorbed in so compact a play and director Jo McInnes's minimalist approach does not aid comprehension when information is conveyed in so cryptic a manner.

Valhalla is Murphy’s first full-length play to get professional production, having been joint winner of the inaugural Theatre503 Playwriting Award (with And Then Come The Nightjars). Sharply written, it shows an original talent and provides plenty to think about.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton