ARE WE READY FOR A SATIR­I­CAL LOOK AT SEC­TAR­IAN VI­O­LENCE?

In the early 2000s Druid Theatre passed on Martin McDon­agh’s The Lieu­tenant of Inish­more, but the po­lit­i­cal tem­per­a­ture is very dif­fer­ent now

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - STAGE - SARA KEAT­ING

In a grim room in the grounds of the Le­in­ster Cricket Club in Rath­mines, Dublin, the win­dows cur­tained against the dark­en­ing sky, a strange scene is un­fold­ing. Two men are puz­zling over a blue stuffed mon­key. “Do you think he’s dead, Donny?” the younger one, Davey, asks. The older man raises a well-fur­rowed brow. “Aye.” “He might be in a coma. Would we ring the vet?” Davey sug­gests hope­fully. “It’s more than a vet this feck needs,” is the terse re­sponse. “If he gave him an in­jec­tion,” the young man won­ders. “Have this in­jec­tion you,” re­sponds the older man, step­ping back and giv­ing Davey “a kick up the arse”.

Davey is out­raged by the as­sault, but it is the flac­cid blue mon­key, ly­ing prone on the kitchen ta­ble like a corpse at an au­topsy, who de­mands our at­ten­tion. If the bizarre as­sem­blage of props in the back­ground – a child’s bike with flat tyres and a dis­tinctly squeaky chain, a pel­let gun, and a box of Frosties ce­real – don’t give the game away, the di­a­logue does. This could only be a scene from a play by the inim­itable Martin McDon­agh.

McDon­agh’s 2001 play The Lieu­tenant of Inish­more is one of his lesser-known works in Ireland, where much of the crit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion around his ear­li­est work was whether he was, in­deed, an Ir­ish play­wright.

The play was writ­ten dur­ing that in­tense pe­riod in the mid-1990s that saw the pro­lific writer pro­duce The Leenane Tril­ogy and The Crip­ple of Inish­maan. How­ever, it took a while for McDon­agh to find a home for it. He had orig­i­nally of­fered The Lieu­tenant of Inish­more to Druid Theatre, fol­low­ing its suc­cess­ful stag­ing of The Leenane Tril­ogy. How­ever, di­rec­tor Garry Hynes passed on it, per­haps be­cause of its po­lit­i­cal sen­si­tiv­ity. The play is set dur­ing the height of the Trou­bles and takes a satir­i­cal look at sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence; stag­ing it then would have co­in­cided with the ten­ta­tive be­gin­ning of the Belfast Agree­ment.

It was di­rec­tor Andrew Flynn, who worked with Hynes as an as­sis­tant on The Leenane Tril­ogy, who even­tu­ally staged the Ir­ish pre­miere in 2006. That first Ir­ish pro­duc­tion of The Lieu­tenant of Inish­more was an am­bi­tious tour­ing co-pro­duc­tion be­tween Gal­way’s Town Hall Theatre, the Cork Opera House and the Mil­len­nium Fo­rum in Derry. How­ever, the Derry leg of the tour al­most didn’t hap­pen, al­though not for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, as Flynn ex­plains.

“We were right in the mid­dle of re­hearsals one day when Mike Diskin [then pro­ducer at the Town Hall Theatre] came in say­ing there was an ur­gent phone call from London. An agent had called say­ing we weren’t ac­tu­ally al­lowed to do the play in Derry. Ap­par­ently Martin didn’t hold the rights for pro­duc­tions of the play in North­ern Ireland. His agent told us that Martin had lost the rights to David Wil­mot [lead cast mem­ber in the orig­i­nal RSC pro­duc­tion] in a game of poker, but thank­fully it all got sorted.”

Even so, the pro­duc­tion had a very dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­ture dur­ing the run at Derry’s Mil­len­nium Theatre, as Flynn ac­knowl­edges.

“When we landed in Derry, some­one sent a par­cel to the theatre to us, this sin­is­ter paint­ing, like some­thing you’d see on a mu­ral in Belfast in the 1980s, with black crows and guns, say­ing ‘good luck to the cast’. We cer­tainly didn’t feel un­safe,” he elab­o­rates, “and I re­ally didn’t think that the pro­duc­tion would cause trou­ble, but I do re­mem­ber that first night in Derry, feel­ing like we had never per­formed it be­fore, and at the in­ter­val walk­ing out into the foyer to see what peo­ple were mak­ing of

it. I re­mem­ber one el­derly man say­ing ‘that cuts fierce close to the bone’. And that’s the thing with all Martin’s work: he likes to make you a bit un­com­fort­able. Be­cause the work is funny, it can be­come panto very eas­ily, but if you aren’t feel­ing un­com­fort­able, if the ac­tors are play­ing it for laughs rather than play­ing it real, it just doesn’t work.”

A very dif­fer­ent place

Four­teen years later Flynn is de­lighted to re­turn to the play with a new large-scale pro­duc­tion at the Gai­ety Theatre in Dublin. Ireland has changed mas­sively in the in­ter­ven­ing years. North­ern Ireland is no longer as riven by ter­ror­ist vi­o­lence, its politi­cians have man­aged to main­tain a peace­ful ac­com­mo­da­tion, de­spite ac­ri­mony. The DUP and Sinn Féin have just agreed to re­sume pow­er­shar­ing in Stor­mont.

As Flynn ob­serves, “Ireland is a very dif­fer­ent place than it would have been dur­ing the peace process. It is eas­ier, prob­a­bly, to ac­cept some of the things that 20 years ago would have caused con­tro­versy. But that is what Martin was try­ing to do. He wanted to write some­thing about vi­o­lence and some­thing that would shock; some­thing that would show vi­o­lence in a shock­ing way. Some peo­ple might still think it’s tak­ing a cheap shot at the Trou­bles, but other peo­ple will think dif­fer­ently.”

In­deed Flynn is not par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the pol­i­tics of the play but in its hu­man dy­namic, in the re­la­tion­ships be­tween the char­ac­ters and the re­la­tion­ships be­tween the cast. “Sim­ply be­cause it’s a dif­fer­ent cast,” Flynn says, “it’s go­ing to be very dif­fer­ent pro­duc­tion, be­cause ev­ery ac­tor brings some­thing to­tally dif­fer­ent than the one who played it be­fore. I don’t come in with an idea of some­thing I want to say, or some­thing that I want the play to say. The ac­tors just get up and do it, and I take what they give and help hone it into some­thing we hope will be great.”

Ac­tors Alex Mur­phy (the guile­less Davey) and Don Wy­cher­ley (Donny, fa­ther to the play’s ter­ror­ist, Mad Padraig) are op­ti­mistic they will be able to turn their dog-eared, high­lighted scripts into some­thing ge­nius.

On a break from re­hears­ing the bizarre open­ing scene, they trade in­sults, half in char­ac­ter. “I’m the old­est one here,” Wy­cherly says with mock rue­ful­ness. “And

I’m the youngest,” Mur­phy coun­ters smugly. Wy­cher­ley in­ter­jects: “Look, I don’t know how that came about but that’s re­al­ity. The other [cast mem­bers] will get up to give me chairs.” As if on cue, Mur­phy of­fers him a seat with a chival­rous flour­ish. The play­ful, rib­bing ban­ter goes on.

De­spite the an­i­mos­ity of their char­ac­ters to­wards each other, how­ever, the pair have been col­lab­o­rat­ing on the play’s big­gest chal­lenge – learn­ing lines. “Oh it’s very liney,” Wy­cher­ley says, bor­row­ing typ­i­cal McDon­agh ex­pres­sions to en­liven his

‘‘

It is eas­ier, prob­a­bly, to ac­cept some of the things that 20 years ago would have caused con­tro­versy. But that is what Martin was try­ing to do

com­plaint. “Yes, it’s just a biteen tricky to learn.” To help, he and Mur­phy have been us­ing voice record­ings on What­sApp to run lines out­side of re­hearsal. “So in­stead of me talk­ing to my­self un­til I break down,” Wy­cher­ley jokes, “that one can give me my cues.”

In­deed, when Flynn gives notes, they are al­most en­tirely about words miss­ing here and there. “You have to be hard on para­phras­ing,” he ex­plains, “be­cause as Martin fa­mously put it him­self to an ac­tor who shall re­main name­less: ‘ev­ery line I wrote is bet­ter than the one you are say­ing’, which I sup­pose is a sub­tle way of say­ing learn the lines.”

For now, how­ever, all the fo­cus in the room is on that floppy blue mon­key, who, by the way, is only stand­ing in for a cat who has yet to join the cast for re­hearsals. In­trigued? Wel­come to the world of Martin McDon­agh.

The Lieu­tenant of Inish­more is at the Gai­ety Theatre, Dublin, from Jan­uary 27th to March 14th

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: MARK ST­ED­MAN; CH­ESTER HIG­GINS JR./THE NEW YORK TIMES

The Lieu­tenant of Inish­more cast: Paul Mescal, Ais­ling Kearns, Don Wy­cher­ley and Alex Mur­phy. Right: Martin McDon­agh.

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