Noel Coward Theatre, London until 8 September 2018
The Lieutenant of Inishmore should be encouraging to any unproduced playwright. Martin McDonagh wrote it in 1994 but it wasn’t staged until 2001. What’s more, in an age where representation is often (rightly) at the forefront of a playwright’s work and where difficult subjects should be treated as such, it is refreshing to see a play where the writer has gone completely where they want to go. In this tightly structured farce, Aidan Turner plays a loyalist, kicked out of the IRA for being too extremist, who puts the welfare of his beloved cat Wee Tommy over everyone else.
Set in the 1990s, there are certainly stylistic connections that can be made to Quentin Tarantino and the ‘In-Yer-Face’ wave of new writing, with one scene in particular echoing Jez Butterworth’s Mojo. And although in the UK it is often seen as a political drama about The Troubles, I’ve been interested to read (in Patrick Longeran’s Methuen Guide) about how different readings of the play have affected its presentation internationally: in Japan as a moral interrogation of how characters treat each other; in Italy as an out and out farce; in New York as a consideration of how people cope with tragedy.
Michael Grandage’s production brilliantly allows McDonagh’s genius for making an audience roar with laughter at a touchy subject to shine. But is it a delicate issue anymore? And if not, what is there left to care about or laugh at in McDonagh’s play? The play, now, prompts thoughts on contemporary examples of terrorism and debates of national identity in ways at which we can laugh. What’s more, as far as I could tell, Grandage doesn’t compromise on evoking a sense of place. A couple next to me were discussing in the interval whether the strong Irish accents were stylised or actually authentic. They concluded that they were probably very accurate but it seems a moot point when you consider other occurrences in the play.
Turner’s guns are not the only thing he has excellent control over. He makes Padraic convincingly unhinged, not batting an eyelid as he’s cutting somebody’s toenails off but then in tears at the mere suggestion of his Wee Thomas (who has many a human quality) of being in harm. Denis Conway and Chris Walley are hilarious as the surprising double act of Padriac’s dad and the local eejit who may or may not have run over Wee Thomas with a pink bicycle. Conway is the one tasked with looking after the cat and who seems strangely nonchalant about his son’s probable reaction, the straight man to Walley’s fool. Their relationship seems another feature of 90s new writing: joke-loaded stichomythia and pseudo father-son relationships.
It’s hard to believe that this play was originally turned down by the National and Royal Court. It’s now a sure fire commercial hit, that fares well in Grandage’s hands. But what most excited me here, on only the second of his plays I’ve seen (after Hangmen), is McDonagh’s capacity to entertain. Whatever criticisms people may have of McDonagh (although Lonergan points out the difference between authorial intent and audience interpretation), his neat plotting and big jokes are enough to entice people not usually interested in theatre. It may be Aidan Turner drawing the crowds in, but it’s Martin McDonagh keeping them satiated.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore plays at the Noel Coward Theatre until 8thSeptember, 2018.
Chris Walley, Aidan Turner and Denis Conway in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Photo: Johan Persson