The Lieutenant of Inishmore
by Martin McDonagh
directed by Steven O'Shea
Review by Bob Ryder
Horror and comedy are, on the face of it, an un-likely combination. But the recipe has a long tradition in the theatre. Seen upon stage, situations of terror and loathing, and those of clownish stupidity, tap into a similar part of our mind. Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore is an extreme and brilliant example of this. The NVT production fully embraced it, along with the other unsettling qualities that distinguish all five of the Irish plays that McDonagh wrote in
the 1990s. The result was superb.
We found ourselves in a world of sublime daftness, with characters every bit as unconsciously funny – even outright unhinged – as in the parish of Father Ted (another wacky creation from the 1990s). At the same time, this is also a
world where extremely violent acts are perpetrated as an almost everyday activity. Mutilation and murder abound, dismemberment is part of the territory. Not even cats are safe. This the world of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (or a Reservoir Cats version).
The mainspring of the piece is Padraic, excellently played by Nikolas Balfe. He skilfully convinced us of a character flipping rapidly between psychopathic extremes and moments of empathy (especially towards cats) and even kindness. His would-be nemesis, Christy, in a fine performance by Culann Smyth, showed us a more ‘mainstream’ form of extremity, from the official side of the terrorist-gangster-splinter-group world. But his actual nemesis was Mairead, a sweet young colleen and a dab hand at putting out the eyes of cows, at long range, with her air rifle. Susanna Elliot did well in portraying this disturbed tomboy waif and her unfolding romance with Padraic – sadly doomed (very bloodily) on account of a cat, of course.
John Everett and Joseph Gavin were a convincing pair of sidekicks in Christy’s assassination squad, with their own quirky philosophical take on life in a ragtag terrorist group. Mark Lester (as Padraic’s feckless dad) and Ben Grafton (his unfortunate neighbour) succeeded in keeping up the comic undertow - suffering panic and indignity as they haplessly try to get out of the peril they’re caught up in (all because of a cat). And Andy Hutchinson did a fine job as James, a
transgressor whom we see being tortured by Padraic early in the play – an unlikely source of comedy indeed!
The production was masterfully brought together by director Steven O’Shea. The technical demands are daunting and detailed, but they were all handled well. A set that served very effectively for the ‘core’ cottage interior, but also allowed
other locations to be suggested along a shallow forestage area - and with skilful lighting to separate the settings. Costume and make-up (including the bloody stuff) that were just right. Smooth fight moves and use of multiple firearms. Some spectacular special effects. And a very weird and wonderful success with props – although dead cats and dismembered limbs do pose a big challenge when an audience is so close to the action! The attention to authentic accent (here so important to get right) was meticulous, expertly coached. And the stage management team had a very busy time, covering a huge number of demands but doing it slickly and almost invisibly. It’s a pity that the particular demands of the final scene (the transformation of cottage to abattoir) necessitated an interval, as this inevitably affected the ghastly momentum of the action. But it’s hard to see how this could be overcome on an open stage, except perhaps in a large professional playhouse.
This is a very ambitious play to take on, with all sorts of ‘bars’ set very high. I saw it at the opening performance and was delighted by how wonderfully shocking – and funny – this accomplished production succeeded in being.