2018 is becoming quite the year for Martin McDonagh; in January his last major play Hangmen opened in New York taking most of its original London cast, then in late February the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri won two Oscars, and in October his latest play A Very Very Dark Matter starring Jim Broadbent about Hans Christian Andersen heralds the Bridge Theatre’s autumn season. In the meantime, a beautifully pitched revival of McDonagh’s 2001 play The Lieutenant of Inishmore about a cat-loving terrorist in1990s Ireland is now playing at the Noel Coward Theatre and guaranteed to draw audiences with star Aidan Turner in the leading role.
With a exceptional version of Translations running at the National Theatre, and more Friel to come at the Donmar later this month with their revival of Aristocrats, London is enjoying a mini-Irish season. Across these plays, there is an examination of the changing relations between our two countries, as well as open-ended questions about nationality and language that have shaped both nations over hundreds of years. With Brexit drawing focus once again to the Northern Ireland boarder, this timely combination of plays have concurrent themes about identity formation, conflict and the future development of two countries whose history is inextricable entangled.
McDonagh has always been very astute in capturing the contrasting and multifaceted nature of the individual, delighting in the unexpected foibles and ridiculousness that bring humanity to some of his darkest creations. Often focused on the perpetrators of extreme violence, many of these characters are given an unexpected softer side, so whether its Brendan Gleeson’s hired assassin with a passion for the medieval architecture of Bruges, a former state executioner running a local pub or a cat-loving anarchist, extreme and almost surreal though it can be, within McDonagh’s work there is always a kernel of truth about human behaviour that lurks beneath the surface. However violent their career choices, there is always pride, attachments and fallibility that make them more rounded.
This also serves to emphasise the fate of the many innocents who get caught in the cross-fire, those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, completely outside of the central plot and suffer as a result – be it children, neighbouring cats or racist dwarves. McDonagh’s scenarios have a warped moral dimension to them, ensuring that the bad people tend to pay for their crimes in outrageously violent ways, retaining a reasonably straightforward perspective on good and evil, punishment and justice.
As a very black comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore on the surface is essentially a tale of in-fighting between various subsets of a terrorist organisation, a disagreement about the etiquette and degrees of violence to be employed in pursuit of their cause. But the unspoken context here is the fraught aftermath of a colonial relationship between Britain and Ireland that has driven this group of men to seek destructive and murderous means to achieve liberty for the North. McDonagh takes a tongue-in-cheek approach but as each hilarious scene builds to a beautifully pitched comic conclusion, the contextual reality of this era, of the fragility of political peace processes, of generations of people driven to extremist behaviour remains striking.
Set on the Island of Inishmore off the coast of Ireland, teenager Davey delivers the corpse of Donny’s black cat which he found in the road with his head staved in. Unfortunately for Davey, the cat – Wee Thomas – really belongs to Donny’s son Padraic, a crazy and violent terrorist working for the INLA, who instantly breaks off the torture of a drug dealer to rush home to see the cat he adores. Teaming-up with Davey’s sister Mairead who enjoys shooting the eyes out of cattle and pursued by an assassination-squad of INLA colleagues, Padraic’s fury is enflamed by meagre attempts to substitute his beloved moggy for another. But, who really killed Wee Thomas and will anyone live to tell the tale?
There is a huge amount of technical skill involved in creating a show like this, one which mixes an implied menace with an almost cartoon-violence that is deliberately unrealistic enough to prevent the violence overwhelming the humour. There is a kind of joy in the build-up to some of the more extreme aspects of the show, which become darker as the plot unfolds, and Christopher Oram has done an impressive job with some slightly heightened but still ghastly-looking props, particularly in the glorious finale.
The penultimate scene too runs beautifully but is full of carefully timed stage-craft that is considerably more complicated than they make it look. It’s a high-stakes scene, probably the most fraught of the play as all the plot elements come together in a Tarantino-style face-off between the various characters. It’s rare to see something like this on stage because it’s so difficult to accomplish in real-time, but Oram’s team has delivered a series of splatters and explosions that can be triggered at exactly the right moment, and even more importantly, create just the right effect, at the right angle on the set and characters – a not insubstantial achievement.
Tone is equally hard to manage in a show like this, and it can be extremely difficult to make it just black enough without becoming too grim, while keeping the lighter stuff in check so that it doesn’t become too farcical – McDonagh wants you to see a touch of reality in his characters, to believe them capable of their extreme actions, but at the same time to chortle at their ludicrous sensitivities and grasp of morality. Director Michael Grandage has got this exactly right, allowing the story to build in the early scenes, enjoying the sillier moments, while still creating sufficient investment in the characters as we build to the more shocking plot devices.
At less than two hours with an unnecessary and distracting interval, the play has only nine scenes across which a full and engaging plot is presented and concluded. Grandage manages the transitions using the main stage for Donny’s farmhouse, and locating other scenes in front of a curtain, a papier mache and paint affair fashioned to look like the Island of Inishmore from the air. This all works very nicely, maintaining the flow while separating between the moments where characters are in transit from their more rooted and identifiable existence in Donny’s home. It is also hilarious, sometimes overt and silly, while at other times more subtle, with throw-away references or character-traits that add extra layers for those who want to see them.
With the stars of long-running and much-loved TV dramas, it’s (shamefully) all too easy to forget their range of skills and the diversity of their work elsewhere. As Ross Poldark, Aidan Turner became an overnight sensation which four series on shows no signs of abating, but the character offers only a limited outlet for his acting portfolio. With hints that the next season may be the last, this seems like an appropriate time for Turner’s return to the stage, to start thinking about life beyond the tricorn hats and slow-motion horse-riding, and to remind the acting world that he has plenty more to offer. His role in the superb BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None offered a charged and dangerous presence, while here in The Lieutenant of Inishmore he comprehensively proves he also has a talent for comedy.
As Padraic, Turner switches in an instant from violent fiend to cat-loving softie, frequently breaking down into tears even at the thought of any harm befalling his precious puss. His first appearance sets-up the rest of the show, as Padraic tortures a drug dealer suspended upside down from the ceiling, Turner elicits just the right balance of silliness in McDonagh’s text, landing a great line about selling drugs to Protestants and, when he hears of Wee Thomas’s illness, the slightly squeaky and tremulous way he asks to speak to his cat on the phone has the audience in stitches.
Turner’s Padraic is definitely a man with no regard for human life, happy to sacrifice his dad and neighbours for the cause, a man with a proclivity for blowing-up chip shops and an anarchic temper. Turner continually balances a growing menace with the heightened nature of the characterisations and scenario to emphasise the ridiculousness of Padraic’s extremes of hate and love (for cats). A final memory of Padraic winsomely stroking a dead cat while referencing 90s TV show The House of Eliot is an image that will stay with you. Turner is genuinely very funny with a shrewd comic timing and clearly enjoys the whole thing tremendously
Padraic’s dad, played by Denis Conway is wonderfully dry, offering an understated but sharp portrayal of man fearing the wrath of his crazy son but with no more interest in anyone’s life but his own. He plays the straight man in a hilarious double act with Chris Walley’s Davey, as the pair embroil themselves in a number of enjoyably daft schemes to hide Wee Thomas’s death from Padraic. Making his stage debut, Walley is given a terrible curly mullet, of which Davey is inordinately proud, and the actor holds his own very nicely in an impressive ensemble.
The only woman in the story, Charlie Murphy’s Mairead is a cold ruthless attacker of cow’s eyes which she shoots out for practice. A dedicated revolutionary, far braver than anyone else in the show, and proud of her skills as a crack shot from a decent distance, 16-year old Mairead is desperate to join the INLA and has an eye for her hero Padraic. Murphy brings a soldier’s composure to the role of the psychotic youngster with a casual approach to life and death, a cool logic that is both comical and terrifying. You’d never want to cross her but in a world of gun-toting men you also slightly root for her.
With McDonagh and Turner’s names attached to the project, there’ll be no concerns about selling tickets so critical support becomes less necessary, but with press night on Wednesday they’re sure to get it anyway. This version of The Lieutenant of Inishmore is an impressive technical accomplishment supported by very fine performances from the ensemble, that has plenty of layers to unpick. More than anything, it’s just a great shoot-em-up farce, a darkly comic treat with a black black heart. It may be a good year for Martin McDonagh, but with so much of his work available, it’s great for us too.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 8 September, and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1