The green room of the RSC's The Other Place in Stratford overlooks the venue's forecourt. During the interval of last Saturday evening's performance of The Lieutenant Of Inishmore, one could hear the cast of Martin McDonagh's play relaxing to the soothing strains of the first Sex Pistols album. In relative terms, it probably is soothing: Lieutenant is the goriest show you are likely to see for some time, and this in a season which has seen a revival of Sarah Kane's Blasted.
McDonagh's, though, is cartoon blood 'n' guts – which is not in any way to deprecate this deliciously black comedy. It begins with a dead cat's brains spilling onto a kitchen table (the programme contains a Hollywood-style note that no animals were harmed in the production), and accelerates from there so that, scarcely an hour and a half later, the stage is awash as the two main characters – Trevor Cooper's grimly rotund Donny and Owen Sharpe as more naïve, good-hearted young neighbour Davey, neither of them the brightest button in the box – dissect the bodies of an INLA "active service unit", and are peremptorily ordered on with lines like, "Them corpses won't be chopping themselves up". All because Donny's renegade son Mad Padraic, who in David Wilmot's performance thinks nothing of pulling off the toenails and slicing the nipple off a cannabis dealer hung upside down before him, has such a soft spot for his moggy Wee Thomas that, when the puss appears to have been run over, he rushes back to his Aran Islands home intent on revenge; once there, he encounters both Davey's sister Mairead (a sharp Kerry Condon), a coltish wannabe-paramilitary and BB-rifle marksgirl, and the rest of his former terrorist cell, intent not so much on recruitment as downsizing with extreme prejudice.
McDonagh is candid that his stylistic influences in the play are cinematic rather than theatrical: Tarantino, Woo and Peckinpah. Just as obviously, it is a sanguinary descendent of Synge's The Playboy Of The Western World, with its backwater community casually accommodating perpetrators of atrocities; Wilson Milam's production hits the same note of unfussy matter-of-factness he brought to last year's revival of Billy Roche's Wexford Trilogy. For me, though, its links are closest to the bloody sardonicism of Co. Down novelist Colin Bateman, or even more to his Floridian godfather Carl Hiaasen: writers who deal in cavalier, imaginative violence among less than bright protagonists ("Do you know how many cats Oliver Cromwell killed in his time?" remarks one of the INLA trio here), and use this grand Guignol as a veil behind which lurks some acute satire of power and corruption within their chosen areas. The actual internecine INLA faction feuding of the late 1980s and early '90s was almost this extreme and this daft.
It's not immediately apparent that there is anything more to McDonagh's play than giggles and gore: before the RSC took it on, the National, Royal Court and Galway's Druid company had all passed on it, and accounts differ as to whether this was for reasons of quality or timidity. But it works much more keenly than at first appears, in lampooning dumbly misplaced priorities while deliberately drawing exactly the same kind of lopsided responses out in its audience to undermine our own sense of superiority to these poor eejits.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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