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The Devil is in the Detail

May 5, 2012

Peter Campion Christopher Fairbanks Rose O’Loughlin

Anyone who has seen the darkly comic ‘In Bruges’ would have half an idea what to expect from Martin McDonagh’s ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore’, currently ending its run at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre. Indeed, maybe it’s a family kind of thing as McDonagh’s brother was responsible for the similarly disturbing Brendan Gleeson vehicle ‘The Guard’. It seems like, with the McDonaghs, you find yourself laughing guiltily, and uproariously, while having deep thoughts in areas into which you’d rather not have strayed.

This is the most controversial of the author’s ‘Leenane Trilogy’ (The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ was a recent hit at the same theatre), and when first written had difficulty in making it to the stage. McDonagh’s urge to shock and challenge, it seemed, had maybe taken him a little too far this time.

Why would that be? Well, let’s take a look at the plot. Mad dissident republican bomber is interrupted in the course of torturing a drug dealer because of the apparent death of his much loved cat. Mayhem and murder ensue with the content taking a pop at republicanism, animal rights, urban dwellers and Irish politics in general. Emerging whilst the Troubles were still ongoing, it’s easy to imagine producers making lists of the number of militant organizations such a play might enrage. And that’s not to mention the Tarantino-esque scenes of carnage involving God’s creatures as well as humans.

So where are the laughs?

Well they are pretty much continuous. Sharp dialogue, the satire of ridicule, and some great comic timing, mix the surreal with the all too pointedly possible, till, in the best theatrical tradition, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Mostly you laugh, the tears, I suspect, for some, come later, on reflection. Which, of course, is McDonagh’s aim. One scene, where the INLA volunteers argue about the provenance of quotes, is such a manically accurate pastiche of quasi left wing disputation, all of it irrelevant to ‘the people’, that my tears were of laughter.

The overblown violence, which is unsettlingly casual on film, is that bit more immediate on stage, and many of the guffaws around us were as much nervous reaction as comedic appreciation. The design is excellent, stopping some way short of ‘Evil Dead’ schlock, and close enough to ‘real’ to make you uncomfortable – albeit in between your snorts of mirth.

The McDonagh trademarks are all there, particularly in use of flamboyant and earthy language. This is not how they actually speak in the far west of Ireland, but it does evoke the humour and wry resignation of folk who live on the edge of Europe, with great clarity, and wit.

The set design was impressive, as is nearly always the case at the Lyceum. Like the play itself, the dinginess of the old farmhouse, the drystone walls around the fields and even the cats in various stages of demise, were emotively evocative without feeling real, surreal without being cartoon. The stage drew you into a slightly parallel universe which wasn’t quite true – you hoped. Without a doubt, a someone once said, the Devil was in the detail.

I have to say that the play was really well served by an excellent cast. As the old farmer, the ‘mother stamper’, the well known face of Christopher Fairbanks was perfect, in a measured but manic performance that the late great JG Devlin would have been proud of. Rose O’Loughlin, as the love struck, violence obsessed, INLA wannabe, was a tour de force of 16 year old naivety and dogmatic certainties, while Liam Brennan was beautifully understated as the self important rebel leader with an unrivalled talent for talking in ‘quotes’ that he’d just made up, and making himself at home with errant nonsense in his political justifications.

As Padraic, the mad bomber, Peter Campion was hugely impressive, capturing the charm and wit of the truly insane as he veered between tears for his cat and lunatic violence; a difficult combination he managed well without ever losing a scarey kind of credibility.

The performance that stole it for me though came from Rory Murphy, as Davey, the shell suited, mullet haired, idiot savant of the piece, whose act of kindness towards Wee Thomas triggers, and I use the word advisedly, the whole chain of events. He played the part with a kind of gormless wit, with the resignation of one who knows that life will always be done to him rather than giving him the chance to make choices. Again, it was a part that could have become a plot cipher, reduced to cartoon, but he never strayed into over the top territory – at least no further than the surreal ridicule of the play’s approach required.

These human portrayals, in a hyped up world of unpredictable madness, made for effective drama and total audience engagement.

So McDonagh’s play gets his energy from a conflict that doesn’t remain on the stage. While we laugh unforgiveably at casual cruelty, we are angered by the idiocy of political dogma; while we mock the characters for their madness, we see the point of their words.

Perhaps perspective has given this play an extra layer, an additional point of view. It certainly seemed that way last night, on the eve of the 31st anniversary of Bobby Sands’ death, at the end of a day of local council election results, and with the DUP and Sinn Fein sharing power in Stormont, McDonagh’s closing question rang out from the stage with a rare authority: What was it all for?

Thanks to a first class production, I’d imagine everyone left the theatre last night with a distinct feeling that they were towing a big question mark behind them.

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