Jemser and I went to see Druid’s production of Martin McDonagh’s Cripple of Inishmaan last night. I was surprised that the Gaiety theatre in Dublin wasn’t full. Druid normally play to packed houses, perhaps a sign of these straitened times?
As always with Druid the set was magnificent albeit a little large for the small shop in the West of Ireland it purported to represent. Perhaps this particular theatre isn’t intimate enough for the pared-back look at claustrophobic small town and rural life Mc Donagh always gives us; the shop interior has a counter the length of which Argos would be proud! But it is the attention to detail that Druid take in all their productions that so endears them to me. The way the tinned peas and bags of flour were stocked – in a particular way that I have seen mirrored in many tiny shops all over the country.
We Irish spend most of our time looking for the flaw - ‘ye missed a bit’ – that fatal little mistake a blow-in will make that will mark him as not one of our own. But McDonagh, reared for the most part in London although spending every summer in Connemara, has us to a T - the petty backbiting, fatalistic thinking and determination to be the first with news, good or bad; our awful predisposition to sneer and jeer and our elephantine memories for slights in the past. The way we’ll back each other up – we can laugh at ourselves but no-one else shall! McDonagh holds a mirror to Ireland for the world to see this decidedly unsentimental side of our psyche.
McDonagh’s female characters are fantastic-I’m a Dub and proud of my accent but I would and go all sibilant eshs to play any of those particular ladies. They remind me of Synge’s Pegeen Mike and Widow Quinn. Strong earthy feisty women, uncowed by centuries of oppression by men, Church and State.
The cripple’s two old aunts who run the store are worry warts who appear to have been standing behind that counter for all eternity. Standing there like Vladimir and Estragon, waiting and wondering, waiting and wondering. Stoics commenting on the anarchy and amorality about them. I particularly love McDonagh’s younger women, Girleen in ‘The Lonesome West’ made a huge impression on me years ago and the character of Slippy Helen in The Cripple of Inishmaan is just as vivid. Her tongue is foul and she has no mercy and one gets the feeling she always tells the truth - and hang the consequences. No dressing things up for our Slippy!
The acting was superb as you would expect from a sterling cast that includes Ingrid Craigie, Liam Carney and Dearbhla Molloy, and Tadhg Murphys’s crippled Billy is masterfully understated. In this production (as in life) there is as much said in the silences on stage as there is in body language and in conversation. Laurence Kinlan’s Bartley makes the most irritating and hilarious clicking noise as he endlessly ponders on which sweetie to take; he's like a clock ticking away the seconds of your life.
Crippled Billy decides he can wait no longer for his life to start, passing time by reading and re reading the few books on the island and staring at the island’s cows for entertainment, so much so that half the populace think he is touched. Doing nothing – as generations before him have done is not an option for Billy. An American film crew has arrived on a neighbouring island to film ‘Man of Aran’ and all the youngsters are determined to go over and be part of this big event. Billy cannot get anyone to take him, sure isn’t he crippled and ugly and not a one on the island wants him let alone a film crew - to paraphrase Slippy Helen and Bartley. So Billy forges a letter from the doctor saying he has not long for this world and shows it to a local boatman BabbyBobby, playing on his sympathies to take him in the boat too.
The boat man does that and returns the following day with the other two youngsters but the cripple stays behind declaring he is off to Amerikay for a screen test and will return wealthy and famous. Life ticks relentlessly by in the shop, Slippy Helen wreaking havoc on the males of the island for presuming to touch her or even think of touching her without paying in some way. Johnny Pateen Mike and his ancient Mammy fight with each other to be first with tidbits of news, each hoping the other will pop his/her clogs asap.
The shop is a bit of a rabbit warren. In and out in and out, everyone saying the same thing and at the same time saying saying no thing.
The States doesn’t work for Billy and home he comes, screws up courage asks Slippy for a date. She laughs at the notion of him - plug ugly and crippled - asking anyone for a date. In despair Billy he plans to kill himself, but even this sombre subject matter has a magical touch of anarchic black comedy that only the McDonagh/Druid combination could come up with. I won’t ruin the ending for you.
What I’ve always liked about Martin McDonagh’s plays is his unflinching honesty and his wicked sense of humour. This is life parodied at a bestial level – cruelty, both physical and emotional abound. And there is certainly no sentimentality. The world claims that the Irish are a sentimental lot ( we’re not, we just cry and sing sad songs when we drink too much) and sometimes we are portrayed in a romantic way, shrouded in tales of Celtic heroes and druids, poets and scholars, brave men fighting our oppressors to free us from colonial rule and globalised religion.
Real Irish life is harsher, the elements and alcohol make sure of that and Ireland’s people are far more pragmatic than the world gives us credit for. Martin McDonagh manages to send us all up, make us laugh at ourselves while accepting unwholesome truths about our tarnished Celtic souls.
So if the show comes within driving distance of your home make sure you get a ticket - a great night out.