In the late 1990s and early noughties, Martin McDonagh quickly earned a reputation as an edgy dramatist with the quick-fire success of his Leenane Trilogy (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West and A Skull in Connemara) and two plays from his Aran Island Trilogy, The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (The Banshee of Inisheer remains unpublished and unstaged). Variously lauded or criticised for being ‘in yer face’ or as a pastiche of canonised Irish drama, McDonagh’s early plays remain a popular choice for today’s theatre makers. The Lieutenant of Inishmore was premiered by the RSC in 2001 with subsequent transfers to the West End and U.S. This week, Tightrope Productions, an Oxford student company, are staging this black comedy at the O’Reilly Theatre.
Set c.1993 in a cottage in Inishmore off the coast of Galway the play follows the discovery by the gormless Davey (brilliantly portrayed by Hugh Tappin) of a dead black cat, presumed to be Wee Thomas, beloved pet of INLA terrorist Padraic (Chris Page). Donny (competently played by Aaron Skates), Padraic’s father, relays news of a ‘poorly’ Thomas to his son interrupting the latter’s torture of a drug dealer James (Peter Madden) in the North. Chaos and retribution ensue when Padraic returns to the island to be reunited with his pet to discover that his arrival is anticipated by more than just the locals.
The only female character in the cast of eight is Mairead (very well played by Kate Weir), Davey’s sixteen-year-old sister. Wearing green camouflage combat trousers, a crafty red SF (San Francisco) t-shirt, and armed with an air rifle, when not terrorising her brother Davey, Mairead reportedly uses local livestock for target practice. She and the pseudo-tough, skinhead, young Eminem-styled Padraic find they have more in common than their love of shooting, their desire to make ‘Ireland free’ and their penchant for pet cats (hers is Sir Roger Casement!). Page’s Padraic hits the right note in his combination of menace and blindsided lack of understanding of humanity. Padraic’s terrorist associates, Christy, Joey and Brendan (ably played by Chris Dodsworth, Patrick Orme, and Cameron Spain) are equally mockable.
The play is a dream for actors who have the opportunity to play controversial characters where exaggerated characterisation is as normal as being familiar with the taste of shoe polish. Each actor rises to the challenge, playing deadpan humour with aplomb, delivering the wonderful one-liners and quips without over-egging. They handle the Irish accents very well indeed (even if Behan is mispronounced) and with the exception of a few of the quick exits, the dialogue is well enunciated.
Director Philippa Lawford uses the space effectively (set designed by Isabella Rooney), from the small platformed cottage area adorned with its ‘Home Sweet Home’ sign where dead cats are ‘treated’ to the dark fluid outer areas creating interesting tableaux. Prop design challenges are well met by Sophie Nathan King and these really come into their own in the final scene where Davey and Donny are horribly funny as they become engrossed in some very gritty tidying up.
Judging by the laughter from the audience, the anarchic humour of the play appealed to most of the audience (perhaps quietly appalled a few). It is hard not to have an almost guilty pleasure in enjoying this play where misplaced concern for septic toes and cats temporarily masks the bigger picture of wholesale carnage. But the moral most of us will take away is the futility of violence and terrorism. The Lieutenant of Inishmore runs through without an interval in under 90 minutes. If you like dark humour, are not too squeamish, and particularly if you are a fan of Martin McDonagh’s work, miss this play at your peril.