Having seen Tightrope Productions’ production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore last year at the Keble O’Reilly, I was intrigued to see a West End take on the script. Although initially sceptical that its director Michael Grandage might simply ride off McDonagh’s recent success in BAFTA-winning and Oscar-tipped Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and the widespread popularity of lead actor Aidan Turner’s Poldark, I was quickly proven wrong. The production incited belly laughs and roaring applause from its audience throughout.
The stage is concealed by a swamp green drop, representing both the military and rural aspects of the play. It also depicts the homecoming of Irish republican terrorist “Mad Padraic” to his childhood home in the Aran Islands to confront his father and local adolescent Davey over the death of his beloved cat Wee Thomas. We’re thus visually prepared for the farcical exploration of the impact of the IRA (and, as humorously depicted in the play, its infinite array of “splinter groups”) on ordinary rural people’s lives. This green is juxtaposed by a vibrant sea-blue at the bottom, parted centrally as if to accentuate the importance of geography in this nationalist conflict.
Once opened, the curtain reveals a domestic scene, comically dated in its furnishings, and the play begins with a frustrated conversation between dimwit Davey and Padraic’s father about the death of Wee Thomas in a road accident. Davey’s much-ridiculed scraggly hair, Motorhead t-shirt and pink bicycle immediately renders him in opposition to the traditional masculinity valued by the culture of the IRA. An inevitable consequence of McDonagh’s slapstick writing, Grandage and designer Christopher Oram pay close attention to the visual in driving home the play’s key message. A crucifix and painting of Jesus on the back wall highlight the hypocrisy of republican and sectarian conflict, especially as later in the play the room becomes the focal point of gore and violence.
As the characters engage in hilariously petty conversations about Republican terrorism, considering its historic motives by asking one another “do you know how many cats Cromwell battered in his time?”, McDonagh reinforces the fruitless obsession with history that motivates Padraic’s brutality. His depiction of the paramilitary’s small-scale splinter group, formed on this tiny rural island town in Galway, conveys a futility comparable to Padraic screaming “tiocfaidh ár lá” into his pillow. His patriotic fixation extends little further than torturing a “drug pusher” (read: small-scale weed dealer for Catholic teenagers) by threatening to slice off his nipples. This slapstick humour inevitably elicits laughter, but beneath its comic appeal lies a poignant message about the political climate of McDonagh’s country of origin.
The West End budget provides for more gore than any student production can afford, so Grandage splashes out on the slapstick upon which the script depends. Splattering explosions, tense gun-pointing and dismembered corpses prompt horrified squeals from spectators. But this excessive violence forms part of its appeal. Partly for this reason, I find it disheartening to read other reviews’ half-joking complaints that Turner’s famous chest isn’t exposed despite his hypersexual onstage interactions, which boost the play’s hyperrealistic violence. It is unnecessary to imply that Turner’s sex appeal outweighs his acting skill when his depiction of Padraic is so charismatic and captivating — he’s brooding, self-deluding and very mad indeed.
Light travels through the stage’s back wall windows to mark daybreak, but alas no illumination is shed on the senselessly gruesome scene. Daylight renders the play’s events even madder, like Padraic himself. But this madness did happen – unjustifiable atrocities committed by militants on both sides during the Troubles are easily likened to the killings we witness onstage over pets and petty remarks. Padraic’s cat, made particularly profound by the use of a real animal at one point, comes to symbolise the sentimental devotion to an idealised Éire established in these militants’ youth that ultimately drives incomprehensible violence. A bold statement to make when first staged during the unrest of 2001, McDonagh’s original message is reinvigorated and reinforced by this 2018 rendition.