No-one sounds convinced. The village of Inishmaan seems to be a desperately lonely place, where boredom takes on an existential quality. A bit like Beckett characters, the villagers fill their time mainly by gossiping and bickering, running over and over each possible topic until any life, interest, or sense is beaten out of it. Also like Beckett characters, almost all the relationships in the play seem to be soured by a sense of resentment, overfamiliarity and mutual disgust, yet simultaneously powered by a keen, sometimes touching sense of dependence.
The play is set mainly in the village shop run by Kate and Eileen. Behind the long, green wooden counter are shelves stacked with little more than tins of peas. Kate and Eileen are the aunties (though not real aunties) of Billy, the cripple of the title. They have looked after Billy since his parents drowned mysteriously soon after he was born. Billy arrives home late, delayed by his favourite past-time of reading and watching cows. He walks uncomfortably across the stage, one foot and hand turned painfully inwards. The play's unsentimental portrayal of disability is disturbing, especially when we see the casual cruelty displayed towards Billy by all the villagers.
The main action is set in motion by Johnny Patty, the most unpleasant character on stage. A professional gossip, he arrives at the shop announcing that a group of film-makers is coming to the nearby island of Innishmore to shoot scenes for a film, and that they may be looking for new actors to take back to Hollywood. This sets the younger villagers in a spin, and Billy determines to sail to the island, along with the girl he hopefully but unrealistically loves, Slippy Helen. Many of the characters in the play have these wonderfully lyrical, childish prefixes to their names.
The narrative of the play is circular and bathetic, a reflection of the playwright's grim view of life. But that doesn't mean the play is hard to watch; it's actually one of the most enjoyable plays I've seen for ages. Most of the fun comes from the dialogue, which is maddeningly repetitive, but at the same time deliciously idiosyncratic and very funny. All the actors deliver these lines with wonderful timing, but I think Derbhla Molloy as Eileen gets the most out of them.
The play is set in 1940, though the only sense of period the play gives us is a brief scene in which one character comments on the peculiarity of Hitler's moustache, before declaring that he looks like a nice sort of fella. This view of the village's, and perhaps also Ireland's, isolation and ignorance is chillingly cynical. But in a sense, Martin McDonagh's opinion of humanity goes almost beyond cynicism. He has no hope that any of his characters will redeem themselves, but he does, almost grudgingly, grant them the little bit of love and happiness they might just about deserve.