Cyprus Avenue at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

Cyprus Avenue

Royal Court Theatre, 4th March 2019

From one black comedy which imagines taboo breaking violence to make a political point (here big as well as small “p”) to another. Having seen the Ladykiller from The Thelmas at the Vault Festival it was off next evening with the SO, MS and MSC to see David Ireland’s much lauded play about sectarianism on its return to the Royal Court after a run in NYC.

Now I had originally signed up to see Cyprus Avenue on its first outing at the RC in 2016 but had to can it due to a diary clash. Didn’t know anything about David Ireland at that time so was a weensy bit peeved when the uniformly excellent reviews came through, especially after seeing The End of Hope, one of Mr Ireland’s earlier plays, which is one of the sharpest and funniest hours of theatre I have seen on stage in the last few years. So to say I was looking forward to this was an understatement. In fact maybe my expectations were a little too high. Don’t get me wrong. Cyprus Avenue delivers on so many levels. Not least the opportunity to see Stephen Rea on stage. Role for role Mr Rea might just be the most principled actor on Irish, British (or any other) stage and screen. He just doesn’t seem to take dodgy parts for money. To say the role of Eric in Cyprus Avenue could have been written for him is the understatement of understatements. But this is not quite the perfect play.

Actually maybe the understatement of understatements is to say that Eric is not a nice man. The play begins with him shuffling on stage into a nondescript room where he is interviewed by a black woman psychiatrist, (the excellent Ronke Adekoluejo, who, like the rest of the cast, has played the role in Dublin and NYC). Eric’s shockingly direct sexism and racism is quickly revealed. But this is not the half of it as it we flashback to Eric’s blunt treatment of wife Bernie (Andrea Irvine) and daughter Julie (Amy Molloy). And his realisation that his baby granddaughter Mary-May is, in fact, Gerry Adams, Republican, and the leader of Sinn Fein, (until last year). Not just a resemblance. He thinks his daughter really is Gerry Adams, complete with beard and glasses. For Eric, a diehard Unionist, this is anathema. His relationship with wife and daughter disintegrates and he even recruits a hardman, albeit comically incompetent, UVF paramilitary to “resolve” his dilemma. The end is shocking as Eric is forced to assert his bigoted identity, in the face of multiple threats, in the most violent way imaginable.

This is then a black comedy through which David Ireland skewers the lunacy of sectarian politics in Northern Ireland and, by implication, elsewhere. Eric’s religious and political values are so deeply ingrained that hate of Catholics and Republicans, the “Fenians” in his words, is his only currency. His warped logic is mined for laughs but the point is deadly serious. What makes the performance of the crumpled Stephen Rea so remarkable is that, through it all, he still makes Eric recognisably human. Not sympathetic of course. Just very real, his views to him are entirely logical and reasonable. You feel that if he were ever to abandon the certainties of religion and politics his entire psych would collapse in front of us. With a preposterous bunch of “British” religious and political zealots in the form pf the Democratic Unionist Party currently trying to hold our executive, and therefore legislature, and country, to ransom, the play could hardly be more relevant.

This is David Ireland’s metier. using uncomfortable comedy, and shocking violence, to interrogate, and maybe upend, our understanding, expectations and preconceptions of key political questions: sectarianism, identity, race, sexuality and culture. In his first play, What The Animals Say, this is filtered through acting and football, in Everything Between Us the setting is a Northern Ireland Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in the End of Hope, sex and celebrity through a surreal one-night stand, (as is the similar Most Favoured), in Half a Glass of Water, male rape and abuse, (Stephen Rea playing the abuser on its original outing), loyalist paramilitaries again in Yes, So I Said Yes, an age gap relationship in Can’t Forget About You, sectarianism once again in Trouble and Shame, and abuse, religion and homophobia in Summertime.

The sharp eyed amongst you will have noticed a pattern here with the same ideas, situations, issues and characters recurring through his plays. There is I suppose a risk of repetition and self-parody in all this “offensiveness”; indeed I gather that his poorly reviewed play, I Promise You Sex and Violence, was guilty of exactly that, though the title suggests Mr Ireland is alive to the possibility. Senseless violence and the urge to provoke can induce a reaction from the easily shocked or the tiresomely worldly but also even from those, like the Tourist, more open to this sort of caper. There were indeed one or two moments in Cyprus Avenue where I did think the point had been made and it was time to move on. MS was of a similar mind, whilst the SO rightly observed a few drops in pace, and MSC was a little nonplussed by all the savagery really .

Yet for all this duplication the provocation works, the dark, ironic parody is often very funny and the dialogue, in passages, sparks. Ulster American, his latest play, is returning to the Traverse in Edinburgh after selling out last year and, once again, dividing critics with its content. I suspect, one way or another, I will end up seeing it. Mr Ireland treads a line, no doubt, with the subjects he explores and with the way he explores them, but I would contend that is, amongst many other things, the purpose of drama. Trying to work out if people are laughing for the right or wrong reasons isn’t really going to work. As ever, in all art, it is the intention of the creator that is paramount.

Cyprus Avenue just could have done with being a little tighter, less overwritten, offering a little more surprise. On the other hand, for example in the scene where Eric and Slim, (the superb Chris Corrigan), meet, the lines are just so darned good, even when they say essentially the same thing, that I can see why Mr Ireland keeps serving them up. The way their mutual indignation at the backsliding of others in their community is captured, in that odd, overly eloquent tone of florid aggression, is delicious. For me, Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, remains the definitive piss-take of sectarianism and is, line for line, funnier but it is not difficult to see why CA has proved a sell-out.

I assume Vicky Featherstone didn’t have to make too much in the way of adjustments to her sure-footed direction in moving the play from Upstairs too Downstairs at the RC and that Lizzie Clachlan’s spartan set was similarly re-used. The text calls for a muzak version of Van Morrison’s song from which the play’s title is drawn, the post part of East Belfast, but I don’t remember this. Perhaps because that might just be the most horrifying thing of all. Just joking. Anyone I have just put Astral Weeks, the album from which it is drawn on. Still as perfect as when it first came out in 1968. Doesn’t matter how grumpy he gets he is still The Man.

Stones in His Pockets at the Rose Kingston review ***

Stones in His Pockets

Rose Theatre Kingston, 1st March 2019

Like Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, and written at the same time, Marie Jones’s Stones in His Pockets is a comedy which examines the impact when a Hollywood film crew descends on a small Irish community. But where one is sharp, dark and intriguing, this, for all of the sorrow at the heart of the play, is a much slighter affair, and can’t seem to make up its mind whether it is satirises or celebrating the outsider view of Ireland it examines. Maybe it was just the production, but the two hander structure, with both actors jumping incessantly between characters, seems to animate the broader, physical humour at the expense of the message about tired stereotyping which, I think, Marie Jones is trying to get across.

Not that it wasn’t funny in places. Though not as funny for me as it seemed to be for others. Some of the audience at the Rose were doubled up in mirth, others sat near stony-faced. Still there was pretty enthusiastic applause at the end for the efforts of Owen Sharpe (Jake) and Kevin Trainor (Charlie), which was very well deserved. Yet I had expected something more given the reception the play was afforded in its early years as it snowballed from its Belfast Lyric premiere, through a community tour, Edinburgh Fringe, the Tricycle and then into the West End for an award winning run of three years. Though perhaps this reflected the combined talents of actors Sean Campion and Conleth Hill (last seen by me steadfastly refusing to be out-acted by no less than Imelda Staunton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). It has been revived on numerous occasions in Ireland, the UK and around the world. I even note that Kare Conradi, the AD of the Norwegian Ibsen Theatre (who was over here for The Lady From the Sea a couple of weeks ago), did a stint in a production over there. If it works in the land of Ibsen then who am I to argue.

Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn are two friends in a rural town in County Kerry who sign up as extras for the Hollywood film. Charlie, on the run from his failed business, has written a script he dreams will be made into a film. Jake has recently returned from NYC, knows everyone in the village, and is besotted by the star of the movie, Caroline. The producers, directors and crew only care about getting the film done on time with plausibility, plot and accents taking a back seat. The “colourful” locals are initially excited at the arrival of Hollywood but soon tire of the glamour, and things take a turn for the worse when one of the villagers, druggie Sean, commits suicide after being humiliated by Caroline in the local pub. The flashpoint is Sean’s funeral. Jake and Charlie get the chance to pitch the script but it is rejected by the film’s for being insufficiently romantic and commercial.

Easy enough to see the tension between the Hollywood view of Ireland and reality. Martin McDonagh takes more direct aim at the liberties taken by Robert J Flaherty in his “documentary” Man of Aran in 1934, but the intent is similar. This touring co-production (with Bath Theatre Royal), is directed by Lindsay Posner, who has delivered it in NYC recently, and is as safe a pair of hands as it is possible to get, whether in classic or lighter theatrical fare (Mamet, Miller, Ben Johnson and Noises Off being particular highlights in my book). Peter McKintosh’s set is your standard Irish outdoorsy caper (see Rae Smith’s bigger budget version for the NT’s Translations last year), with the two actors manipulating a large chest to simulate the indoor scenes.

Moderately entertaining. For sure. Thought provoking. Nope, Fraid not.

A Skull in Connemara at the Oldham Coliseum review ****

A Skull in Connemara

Oldham Coliseum, 28th February 2019

Two successive nights. Two revivals of comedies looking at the nature of “Irishness”. Martin McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara and Marie Jones Stones in His Pockets. Which did the Tourist prefer? McDonagh’s black comedy of course. Bit trickier to get to, train to Manchester, then an admittedly convenient tram to Oldham on a wet and windy evening, vs a 10 minute walk, but effort rewarded.

Thanks in large part to Chris Lawson who is the Acting Artistic Director (an entertaining if accidental play on words) at the Oldham Coliseum, an alumni of the Almeida and was responsible for this revival. Based on his work here, and the intelligent and accessible programme he has devised for this season, an in-house revival of Barney Norris’s Visitors, co-productions of Moira Buffini’s Handbagged and the musical The Hired Man, and touring productions of Approaching Empty (from the Kiln and worth seeing) and Charlotte Keatley’s local, and now global, smash hit My Mother Said I Never Should, if I were the Board of the OC I would give him the permanent job. Good people of Oldham and Greater Manchester I enjoin you to pitch up for any, or all, of these entertainments. You won’t be disappointed. I might join you for Visitors if I can rustle up the train fare.

I have bored you enough before on this site about the genius of Martin McDonagh’s plays so I’ll pipe down this time. Suffice to say A Skull in Connemara, first performed in 1997, was the second of the Leenane trilogy after The Beauty Queen of Leenane and before The Lonesome West and may be gets slightly overlooked compared to its peers, the later plays and the two produced plays in the Aran Islands trilogy, (the first of which, The Cripple of Inishmaan would provide an even more fruitful compassion with Stones in His Pockets – same conceit, Hollywood comes to rural Ireland – and both written in 1996).

Too often the words “black humour” or “black comedy” are the precursor to an entertainment that is neither dark nor funny. Not here though. This is quite literally graveyard humour. There is normally an expanding kaleidoscope of high (Synge and Beckett) and low (cop shows) culture references in MM’s work. Here surely Elsinore and everyone’s favourite, overly literal grave-digger has been transported to the west coast of Ireland. Loner Mick Dowd (John O’Dowd), amongst other things, is tasked each year with digging up and disposing of the skeletons in the local churchyard to make room for new entrants. His wife, who died seven years earlier, is interred there but, when he finally gets to her exhumation, she has disappeared. Bad news, especially when the village rumours is he bumped her off in the first place, so the story goes, for burning his scrambled eggs. He is assisted in his work by the local gobshite Mairtin Hanlon (Liam Heslin), whose chain smoking brother Thomas (Griffin Stevens) just happens to be the bumptious, corrupt local Garda, role models Starsky and Hutch. The cast is rounded off by the Hanlon’s elderly gran, Maryjohnny Rafferty (Jenny Lee), prone, like Mick to a shot of poteen, to tittle-tattle, cheating at bingo and bigotry.

Now for all his playful meta conversions, inversions and reversions (especially in the “fairy-tale plays” and the films), MM knows how to work structure, plot, character and rhythm. With just four characters in an isolated location, turned in on itself, where everyone’s business and history is shared, MM creates even more opportunity than usual to explore the personal dramas and relationships within the world he has created. Little does she know that he knows the she knows …. And then what do we know? All four characters have secrets of a more or less heinous kind.. Though this is still, by MM’s standards, a pretty “straight” play within the overall literal metaphor of “digging up the past”. He does treat us to some of the devices we have come to know and love: moral instability, dark, ironic humour and plot twists but this is gentler than many of the later plays.

Apart from the Tarantino-esque bone crushing scene choreographed to the sound of Dana’s All Kinds of Everything, Mairtin’s juvenile fascination with violence (road deaths, children drowned in slurry, boiling hamsters as well as his description of a bottle attack he perpetrated to revenge a slight oh how. trainers), his head wound and Thomas attempting to strangle Mick. Around this “comic” aggression though is some fairly good-natured verbal sparring, intended to upend “Oirish” stereotypes but not really with the vehemence, subversion and unpredictability of the later plays and films. The ending is satisfying ambiguous. We never find out whether Mick was responsible for his wife’s death but it feels like he might.

Katie Scott’s set, alongside the twilighted lighting design of Stewart Bartlett and resonant sound of Dan Bottomley, and a large helping of dry ice, is largely responsible for conjuring up a sense of chilly mystery and connection with the (Celtic) past. It slips seamlessly between graveyard (with falling crucifix looming out of the shadows) and the interior of Mick’s cottage. John O’Dowd, who was excellent as Jim in ETT’s touring production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir (another play which springs from the same place, not literally mind, as ASIC and Stones in His Pockets and was also premiered in 1997), brings the right tone of bluff pensive inscrutability to Mick and Liam Heslin’s explosive Martin seems unable to rein in his wild, morbid impulses in the face of repeated incomprehension. Griffin Stevens shows Thomas as a man supremely confident in his own inabilities. Jenny Lee understandably seems to take great pleasure in serving up Maryjohnny’s choicer acerbic lines.

Mining MM’s texts too insistently for laughs can play up the cartoonish tone at the expense of the darker overtones and pointed referencing . Not here though. Mr Lawson gets the balance right, the four characters are larger than life but the interplay between them is convincing and the simultaneous mocking and celebration of the form is well observed. I would have preferred the play ran straight through, and a fuller house would have served the cast better, but if this is what a portent of what is to come, in this very friendly space (I managed to get lost, don’t ask), then Manchester theatre-goers have even more to celebrate.

A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre review ****

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A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter

Bridge Theatre, 13th October 2018

OK then. All of you fans of densely-plotted, cerebral, potty-mouthed, fairy-tale, political, splatter, revenge, comedy fantasies. Your ship has come in.

I have a strong feeling that Martin McDonagh’s new play at the Bridge will, in years to come, form the basis for many a Theatre and Drama Studies students’ dissertation. Let’s just say he doesn’t hold back here. All of his tics, tropes and obsessions are on show: moral instability, savage humour, verbal aggression, twisted irony, brutal violence, calculated abuse, punishment, justice and revenge, inversions, post-modernist borrowings, self-reverence, complex allusion, high and low art juxtapositions, exaggerations, call-backs, call-forwards and protean plot twists.

In a word: meta.

Once again he is pushing the audience, deliberately transgressive, a kind of theatrical meta-regression to keep us on our toes, but this time, unlike the best of his work, it doesn’t quite hang together on first viewing. The rhythm of the language is less immediately persuasive, less precise, (even allowing for a few timing issues at this early performance). It cannot be missed mind you, and it may be that the production will tighten up through the run, but overall I found it a little less convincing than Hangmen or The Lieutenant of Inishmore, or Three Billboards … or In Bruges. In these the intricate plotting and more naturalistic settings make for a more satisfying whole. On the other hand AVVVDM might turn out to have more intellectual depth: I am simply not clever enough to take it all in on one viewing. Probably closest to Seven Psychopaths for you students of MM, a film even he described as maybe a bit too meta, but one which I think gets better on repeated viewing.

AVVVDM is drawn from Mr McDonagh’s 1995 play The Pillowman, which was first performed in 2003 at the NT and also starred Jim Broadbent, (who plays Hans Christian Anderson in AVVVDM), as cop Tupolski, alongside David Tennant, Nigel Lindsay and Adam Godley. In this play a writer, living in an unspecified totalitarian theocracy, is accused of murders which mimic the plots of his own fairy tales. It is a bit Gothic, it captures the power of literature, there’s some Kafka going on, the ethical dilemma is fascinating if a little forced, of course there is violent imagery and of course there is humour.Like all of McDonagh’s plays The Pillowman’s morality is slippery, though not really ambiguous; it is normally pretty clear what he is saying, just that its compass is oscillating so rapidly between perspectives of right and wrong that we in turn start to lose our bearings.

Once again it he world of “fairy tales” that forms the starting point for AVVVDM. In fact the “plot” looks to be drawn from The Shakespeare Room, which Michal, Katurian’s damaged brother, references in The Pillowman. In this story it turns out that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a pygmy woman he kept in a box. MM has described in the past, reiterated in the programme here, how he made up fairy tales in his teens for his older brother John. One of these formed the basis for another of Katurian’s stories in The Pillowman, The Tale of the Town on the River, which tells how the Pied Piper “saved” one of the children by chopping off his toes. And so fairy tales get darker and darker with the telling.

AVVVDM kicks off with Hans Christian Andersen giving a contrived recital of The Little Mermaid. Now it turns out that the real HCA was an awkward character, abused at school, with unrequited longings for men and women but likely celibate. One of the objects of his affections, Edvard Collin (Lee Knight), is in the crowd in this opening scene. And, incongruously, also there, well there in HCA’s mind, cue the scary music, are a couple of blood encrusted, walking and talking, corpses, Barry (Graeme Hawley) and Dirk (Ryan Pope), sporting fine moustaches. Well this is a fairy tale after all. Cut to the attic of HCA’s townhouse where, surprise, surprise, we discover that he has a secret, namely a Congolese pygmy, Marjory, in a box, who is writing his stories.

All this is accompanied by a gravelly narration from none other than Tom Waits. From here MM weaves together the genocide in the Congo Free State in the late C19 with the real life friendship of Charles Dickens (Phil Daniels) and HCA, which unravelled when HCA overstayed his welcome on a visit in 1857. I’ll stop there. Let’s just say the plot plays fast and loose with fact, fiction and time.

I guess MM’s main thrust is to contrast the near unbelievable horror of King Leopold II’s direct, private rule of the Congo from 1885 to 1908, where maybe ten million died, and which scarred the country through Belgian colonial rule, and post independence, with the pygmy population suffering most, (as it still does today), with the maudlin tales of innocence and virtue standing fast against corrupting forces of both HCA and Dickens. It is hard to avoid the stories told by the latter, they permeate Western culture: the barbarous reality of the former though, a couple of decades later, and far worse than anything imagined in fiction, is still barely known by many, including me until now.

The fact that MM tells this story in the form of a comedy, in an expletive-ridden contemporary vernacular, is only to be expected from MM. Casting Jim Broadbent and Phil Daniels, who are, by virtue of career and demeanour, are distinctively Dickensian, is surely no accident. After all a new MM script will pretty much guarantee any actor from his roster of favourites will sign up, sight unseen. Both went all out for laughs, many of which were at the broad end of the subtlety scale. Emily Berrington, as she so often does, near steals the scenes she is in as the earthy Mrs Catherine Dickens. I loved the sweary kids as well. Paul Bradley, as the inexplicit Press Man, also turned in his customarily fine performance.

However the play would not be possible without the formidable Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory, (and later Ogechi, you’ll see). From the moment she emerged from the box, suspended from the ceiling in Anna Fleischle’s amazing set, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. This was BUD, and KCK’s, first exposure to the wonderful and frightening world of Martin McDonagh. The SO was converted at Hangmen. When we emerged, not a little bewildered, after the 90 minutes, we debated the play long into the night. OK then maybe not long into the night, but certainly as long as it took to have a drink, some rarebit (highly recommended) and some madeleines, in the excellent Bridge foyer. Anyway BUD, being the analytical sort of chap he is, couldn’t get over the fact that the play could only exist with Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in the role. Surely it must have been written for her?

I agree. But not for the obvious reasons of appearance. Simply because she is an outstanding actor. Sardonic, bitter, vengeful, powerful yet also vulnerable, compassionate and forlorn. Don’t get me wrong she delivers plenty of killer (literally) comic lines but she also carries the entire weight of the emotional and political substance of the play on her shoulders. This is her professional debut. Extraordinary.

Now director Matthew Dunster, and Anna Fleischle, have previous with Martin McDonagh, having brought the Royal Court production of Hangmen into being. (Mr Dunster also has form with HCA, directing the Pet Shop Boys’ ballet adaptation of his story The Most Incredible Thing. Messrs Tennant and Lowe know a thing or two about stagecraft challenges but they are not a patch on MM).

Even so I suspect director and designer, and the rest of the creative team, James Maloney (music), Philip Gladwell (lighting), George Dennis (sound), Chris Fisher (illusions), Finn Ross (video) and Susanna Peretz (wigs and prosthetics), must have rolled their collective eyes at their first meeting. How were they going to make this leap of mischievous imagination from page to stage? Impressively, as it turns out.

So you see the thing with MM is there is just so much there. So many echoes yet uniquely his own voice. Scorsese, Malick, Pinter, Tarantino, Synge, Le Fanu, Mamet, Beckett, Borges, punk. Insert your own thoughts here. I for one really what to believe he likes The Fall.

A master story-teller. With maybe, in this case, not quite a master story. It might annoy you. It might frustrate you. It might provoke you. It might overwhelm you with “WTF” moments. It should make you laugh, (assuming you know a little of what you are letting yourself in for). It will certainly make you think. And you definitely won’t forget it in a hurry.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noel Coward Theatre review *****

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The Lieutenant of Inishmore

Noel Coward Theatre, 31st August 2018

My regular reader, (hello), will need no reminding, (OK maybe they will), that I am a massive fan of Mr Martin McDonagh. Hangmen is the best new play I have seen in the last 3 years, indeed one of the best ever, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, amongst the best films. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri film review *****). I am massively excited about his new play, A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter, which will open at the Bridge Theatre in October, with Jim Broadbent in the lead as Hans Christian Anderson and Phil Daniels alongside him as Dickens. It sound like it will plough the same dark furrow as 2003’s Pillowman, (which Mr Broadbent originally starred in), where a writer, living in an unspecified totalitarian theocracy, is accused of murders which mimic the plots of his own fairy tales. It is meta, a bit Gothic, it captures the power of literature, there’s some Kafka going on, the ethical dilemma is fascinating if a little forced, of course there is violent imagery and of course there is humour.

Like all of McDonagh’s plays The Pillowman’s morality is slippery, though not really ambiguous; it is normally pretty clear what he is saying, just that its compass is oscillating so rapidly between perspectives of right and wrong that we in turn start to  lose our bearings. That is what makes them thrilling. I would be pretty sure that violence is going to be a theme in the new play, as well as the nature of “story-telling”, based on the intriguing Bridge blurb.

Prior to The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore was the last produced of Mr McDonagh’s “Irish” plays, and the second in the Aran Islands trilogy, (named after the three islands in Galway Bay), and was originally produced in 2001 by the RSC. (The final play in the trilogy, The Banshees of Inisheer, is as yet unpublished). Michael Grandage, the director here, revived the first in the trilogy, The Cripple of Inishmaan, to great acclaim, in 2013, at this very theatre, with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead. It is, you guessed it, a black comedy, this time about the impact on the community, and specifically bookish loner Billy, of a Hollywood film crew on neighbouring Inishmore in 1934. The documentary, like the play, was a sort of pastiche on the “remote” west of Ireland, and there are strong echoes of JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. McDonagh, with his rapid plot reversals, with his fictions and lies, and with that always slippery morality, again sets out to confuse and offend. Here his target is the whole notion of Irish identity, the creation myths if you will. Set it up, then knock it down, shift it on, that’s the method he employs and that’s why his plays and films are so bloody marvellous.

The ink had been dry for three years or so on the Good Friday agreement when The Lieutenant of Inishmore first appeared on stage. However it was actually written in 1994, and is set in 1993, the year of the Harrods, Warrington, Bishopgate and Shankhill Road bombings. Yet by the end of that year British PM John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds were able to sign the Joint Declaration of Peace, the beginning of the end of the Troubles. Now some halfwit Brexiteers public school jape puts this all at risk, amongst so many other things. Remember it is now near 600 days since the power sharing assembly which forms the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed and the threat of a return to direct rule looms without any agreement. Meanwhile the Northern Ireland Secretary freely admits she knew nothing about politics in the country ahead of being appointed. Anyway, calm down Tourist. Back to the culture.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore, in common with many other of Mr McDonagh’s works, uses extreme violence to show that violence is no solution to argument or injustice, whether personal or political. “A violent play that is whole-heartedly anti-violence” as its author described it. Mad Padraic is a terrorist who is so brutal that he has been booted out of the IRA and even the INLA. We first encounter him torturing a suspected drug dealer until interrupted by the news from back home in Inishmore that his cat Wee Thomas is ill. Let’s just say havoc ensues thereafter. The play is a satire on Irish terrorism, for sure, on political violence more generally, and especially on the kind of beliefs, and the fanatical rhetoric and sanctimonious moral superiority underpinning them, that justify mindless butchery by the believers.

It is brutal, callous but also very funny. The idea of a revenge comedy is hardly new: I think this is the best way to interpret Titus Andronicus and its forebears for example (Titus Andronicus at the Barbican Theatre review ****). Or the films of Quentin Tarantino. To squeeze this many laughs out of the situation though, whilst clearly conveying your message, takes extraordinary writing skill.

It also needs a skilful cast to strike the right tone and pace. Now I don’t think it will come as much of a surprise when I tell you that I was probably one of the few members of the audience who wasn’t there to gaze upon the undoubted charms of Aidan Turner as Padraic. Indeed, following a late substitution. the SO stood down to be replaced by LD. The LD has not yet been meaningfully exposed to the genius of Mr McDonagh, unlike the rest of the family, nor frankly is she a fan (yet) of that Poldark. But she can see the fella is gorgeous, I assured here it would make her laugh and the political context was right up her academic street. She thought it was brilliant. And that remember from a youth who is very suspicious of both Dad and the “theatre”.

She was right. This is a brilliant production. And that is due in no small part to the charisma of Aidan Turner. Mr Turner’s stage career has been hijacked by the TV roles and this is effectively his first major role outside of Dublin. He is very, very good, toning down Padraic’s sadism and dialling up his childish sentimentality, so I hope we don’t have to wait too long for his next outing. This is not just about him however. Denis Conway as Padraic’s father Donny, Chris Walley in his stage debut as the hapless Davey and Charlie Murphy as Davey’s sister, and budding “freedom-fighter” and Padriac’s soulmate, Mairead, are all mightily impressive. The set from Michael Grandage’s regular collaborator Christopher Oram is revealed to be an exact replica of the family cottage in every detail even as it is splattered with lashings of blood.

 

 

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri film review *****

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, 16th January 2018

Best film of 2018.

Settle down Tourist. We are only three weeks in. Well I am confident that nothing will come along to match this so I stand by my sensationalist claim. You see I spent all of 2016 waiting for a better play than Hangmen, also penned by Martin McDonagh, to come along and it never did. In Bruges is a top 10 ever film for me and The Pillowman is another favourite play. I have not seen all of the five “Galway” plays that Mr McDonagh tossed out in the space of a year in 1994, in the absence of a proper job, but I have read them. I love theatre but trust me, I don’t read many texts, that would be a step too far. But these cried out to be read. Heavens I even think Seven Psychopaths could do with more meta references.

So, as you can see I have a (un)healthy admiration for Martin McDonagh. And now, to cap it all, I read that he is courting the prodigiously talented Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Even by his high standards though, Three Billboards is a terrific achievement. I believe he has argued in the past that film is a better artistic medium than theatre, (he is transparently wrong in this regard), but the simple fact is, the reason he is such a brilliant film-maker is precisely because he is such a brilliant playwright.

He can tell a story. And he does it in a classically Aristotelian way. Perfect plotting. Take a character, or in this case three characters in the form of Mildred Hayes, the transcendent Frances McDormand, Bill Willoughby, played by a pitch-perfect Woody Harrelson, and Jason Dixon, entrusted to another McDonagh regular, the Sam Rockwell, and present them with problems to solve, or not.

The bitter, careworn Mildred wants justice for her daughter, Angela, who was brutally raped and murdered. The target for her fury is police chief Willoughby, who, we soon learn, is dying of cancer. And one of his officers, Dixon, is a violent racist whose redemption is prompted by Willoughby’s intervention. These major characters, and those supporting the story, could not be more vivid.

Justice, rage and revenge, as we know from other contemporary film directors, (there are echoes of Tarantino and Asian masters here), and playwrights down the ages, are themes that are guaranteed to grip any audience. I think those who have got hooked up on race, the state of America, sexual violence or a host of other themes they think this film should be addressing have missed the point.

Language: well I have no idea how the good and bad people, of Missouri speak, but I know there is poetry here. And you never know what anyone will say next. There is so much small detail to relish in the dialogue. There is spectacle aplenty with a string of WTF scenes and some stunning cinematography. The multiplicity of tone, and “ordinariness” of location, constantly left me searching for cinematic references.

The jerky rhythm that is created from the interplay of plot, character, language and spectacle carries us along breathlessly. What just happened? What is about to happen? Do I like them? Do I hate them? Why did they do that? These are questions you need to keep asking to make a drama come alive. Three Billboards delivers this. Again and again and again. The wonderful score and intelligently curated musical excerpts only add to the story.

McDonagh’s writing is economic and fearless as is his directing. There are multiple occasions where he rushes in where others fear to tread, but he is no fool. Bait and switch followed by bait and switch, but never really stretching credulity, (which is an overrated requirement in naturalist drama anyway). Suffused with violence sure, but also with humanity. And plenty of characters whose primary mode of expression is “f*ck you” which, as well know, is as naturalistic as it comes.

This then is a tragedy full of comedy. Or a comedy full of tragedy. There was another playwright who mastered that art and was unafraid of going straight for the audience’s jugular. Big Will didn’t deal in stereotypes either and the good, the bad and the ugly could crop up on the same page in the same character. And he was wowing them 400 years ago. Further back there were 3 Greek fellows who nailed drama – so good they defined it. All good people to emulate.

Once you strip out the fantasies, the horrors, the rom-coms, the puerile, the childish, the introspective, the experimental, the “real life” dramas, the biopics, the historical, the spys, the super-heroes ….. and so on and so on, there just aren’t that many films that want to take a human story, and make it mythic. I appreciate that those who prefer their entertainment where the violence is frequent, unremarkable and bloodless and the comedy broad, or those who want drama that scrupulously adheres to their world-view of what is just, (best steer clear of Othello then), but, for those of you who prefer your meat a little rarer, (or your tofu a little spicier), then DO NOT MISS THIS.

Predictably I have got carried away. I just think this is an amazing film by an amazing writer. So I’ll stop now. For those of us Londoners who love this man’s work we are in for a couple more treats this year with a revival of The Lieutenant of Inishmore from end June at the Noel Coward Theatre directed by Michael Grandage, (who successfully revived The Cripple of Inishmaan in 2013), with that sex-bomb Aidan Turner playing Mad Paidrac, and with his new play A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter opening at the gorgeous Bridge Theatre in October. This sounds like it will revisit the dark and twisted territory of The Pillowman. I’ve booked it to replace the usual family panto trip.