The Cripple of Inishmaan
By Martin McDonagh
Michael Grandage Season
The Noel Coward Theatre, London
Saturday 15th June 2013, matinee
Featuring Daniel Radcliffe
The Grandage season 2013 got off to a flying start with a terrific Privates on Parade, then, we felt, fell flat with Peter and Alice, not only a very dull play indeed, but also a static and weakly-directed play. We thought it poor at the time and I said so in the review linked above. People I’ve spoken with since thought I was over generous. So number three in the season is the cruncher: Will it live up to Grandage’s expected high standards? It is a star-struck concept, this season. The Harry Potter factor was a minor attraction for us. I never managed to sit right through a Harry Potter film without drifting away and composing shopping lists mentally (our kids were already too old when Harry Potter hit the world), but always found Daniel Radcliffe an engaging and entertaining guest on chat shows.
The Cripple of Inishmaan was first performed in 1996, as part of McDonagh’s second “Aran Islands” trilogy. We saw the next play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore at The Other Place in Stratford in 2001, and have been hoping to see another McDonagh play ever since. We’ll never forget the performing cat, which stole the show in an extremely gory but (very) black comedy. McDonagh’s pen was directed to the IRA that time, with the terrifying Padraig (thrown out of the IRA for “being too mad”) seeking out his cat’s killers.
The Cripple of Inishmaan is set sixty years earlier, on the Aran Islands in 1934. A Hollywood production company has arrived on the islands to make a film, the real documentary Man of Aran, and Daniel Radcliffe plays Billy Claven, who is disabled, and hopes being cast in a film will change his life. Billy was orphaned, and lives with two adoptive aunts Kate (Ingrid Craigie) and Eileen (Gillian Hanna) in the village store. It’s probably the island’s only store, and sells nothing but tinned peas, eggs and a few sweets. The film (or fil-im as I want to say in an Irish accent) is being made on the neighbouring island of Inishmore, and brother and sister Helen (Sarah Greene) and Bartley (Conor MacNeill) want to go over for the casting, and have persuaded Babbybobby (Padraic Delaney) to row them across. Billy is desperate to accompany them, and to get the chance to do a screen test in America. The play has eight or nine scenes, and the set is a revolving set of three stages. These stages get changed while revolved out of sight too, so we move seamlessly from the village store to the rugged coastline with a boat, a bedroom in Inishmaan, another in Hollywood, the village cinema (with the finished real Man of Aran being projected on a sheet), back to the store. All the sets are solid-looking, realistic and excellent.
The first thing to say is that Martin McDonagh’s play is wild and magical Irish writing of the highest order. This isn’t simply a “good play”, it’s one of the best plays of the last twenty years, and I’m going to need the Thesaurus to find more and bigger and better and greater superlatives. The Michael Grandage production gives it a deserved treatment: a perfect cast ( I deleted “near” before “perfect”). Five star set design, costume and lighting. Direction so good that you cannot believe the dire Peter and Alice came from the same company. I’m going to be wary in revealing any more plot details, and will only allow myself to repeat one funny line.
Billy and Helen, ‘the fierce girl.’
McDonagh spears Irish self-doubt, with a running joke that “Ireland can’t be so bad if (French people) want to come here.” The replacements for “French people” get progressively wilder. He also spears paedophile priests, and this was 1996 when it was written. Helen (Sarah Greene) is a McDonadgh speciality character, the fierce (but sexy) girl, also central in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Helen’s job is delivering eggs. She reveals the priest’s fumblings, and her younger brother, Bartley, is asked ‘Did the priest fondle your arse too?’ and replies with impeccable timing, ‘Not my arse …’. The fierce girl is a powerful role, and Sarah Greene is an actor you know immediately you’re going to hear a lot more of it. Conor MacNeill has the task of playing a young lad in short trousers, constantly demanding varieties of American ‘sweeties’ unknown on Inishmaan from the shop. Not an enviable role, but he makes it work.
Helen and Bartley
In directing video or film, the director assumes every actor has an internal concept of a rotary control. Direction can be as simple as “Larger” or “Smaller.” Obviously, stage work is on the higher end of the rotary control, and film on the lower end … smaller movements, more subtle interpretation. If you want to grade the rotary control from 1 (smallest) to 10 (largest), Brian Blessed is a bench-mark, like Spinal Tap in the movie, set permanently at 11. The review we read first of this production suggested the star had set his rotary control at a naturalistic film end of the scale, which is fine, only the rest of the cast had the dial up at the other end.
I couldn’t disagree more. Daniel Radcliffe portrays Billy as the central “real” person in spite of his disabilities (which Radcliffe spent four months investigating and practising, and the same time with a dialect coach). It’s a straight unequivocal five star acting job, proving to us yet again that major film stars on stage generally acquit themselves well and prove “this is why I’m a star.” You realize that all those years of doing Harry Potter, Radcliffe was surrounded by the cream of British acting talent, and you couldn’t get a better education. His more recent stage roles in Equus and How To Succeed in Business were widely acclaimed. Radcliffe’s Billy works as the play was written and conceived. Billy is badly crippled, but is the genuine and sympathetic character in a wild setting. All the other characters, with the exception of the doctor (Gary Lilburn) are outrageous in one way or another. Billy probably gets a lesser number of lines than several of the other characters, and is off stage for many of the funniest bits. Billy has to invoke pathos and tragedy in the midst of all this whenever he is on, and the play works by contrasting him to everyone else.
Eileen and Kate, the two adoptive aunts are such a brilliant double act that you could see a sitcom being built around them. Kate talks to stones when she gets stressed. Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt) is the village news gatherer, and is a massive character, linking everything together with his voracious thirst for information, however trivial. A cat biting a goose’s is a major event on the island.He says he’s hoping to finish off his 90 year old mother (June Watson) by plying her with poteen. We all know someone with the same need for information, continually interrogating people about the tiniest detail. By the way, McDonagh explores language so well when Billy asks both Babbybobby and Johnnypateenmike to call him just ‘Billy’ rather than ‘Cripple Billy,’ but they don’t see a problem with odd names, and why would they? Reviews feel a need to apologize for ‘cripple’ but it’s just a word, and in rural Ireland and rural Wales (see Under Milk Wood) people were given names that were descriptive, but not necessarily flattering.
Johnnypateenmike and Billy
On language, throughout McDonagh uses the minced oath: feck, fecking, fecker. A minced oath is a word like blooming, effing, naffing or flipping which are politer replacements for a real one. Norman Mailer used fug, fugging as a minced oath in The Naked and The Dead leading Tallulah Bankhead to say when introduced to him, ‘Oh, you’re the man who doesn’t know how to spell “fuck.”’ Feck / fecker / fecking / feck off is also used in the Irish sitcom set in the Isles of Aran, Father Ted. It predates both, and has been used in Ireland for so long and so widely that it’s barely a minced oath. But it did remind me of Father Ted , enough to look up dates, and Father Ted aired in April 1995, eighteen months before The Cripple if Inishmaan was first staged. The stage play is harder hitting, and while a black comedy, doesn’t have a funny ending. Coincidentally, watching Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade (1977) in this same season led me to look up the dates of the sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974). Both times I thought the sitcom inspired by the play. Both times, it seems, if there were any connection, it would be the other way round.
Bartley trying to buy sweeties at the shop
My task now is to find out more stagings of McDonagh’s plays … he is produced a lot in the USA. This was one where we came out saying ‘We’d love to see that again.’ After McDonagh’s Academy Award for the short film Six Shooter in 2005, he has devoted himself to film as writer and director (In Bruges, Seven Psycopaths) and says he’s no longer interested in writing for the stage. Hopefully he’ll return to theatre one day.