It’s been quite some year for Martin McDonagh. His 2017 film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri scooped up a clutch of Oscar nominations. His 2016 play Hangmen enjoyed a critically acclaimed run Off-Broadway. And in the autumn, his next work – A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter – opens at the Bridge Theatre.
Now, though, it’s time for a star-studded West End revival of his 2001 black comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Michael Grandage’s staging, hot on the heels of his recent revival of Red round the corner, is at the Noel Coward Theatre until September.
Aidan Turner – star of Poldark, The Hobbit trilogy, and all-round hairy-chested heart-throb – stars as Padraic, an Irish republican deemed too fanatic for the IRA. When it premiered in 2001, McDonagh’s play caused something of an uproar. Poking fun at the IRA, when the ink on the Good Friday Agreement was barely dry, made people just a bit nervous.
But what does McDonagh’s mockery make the critics feel in 2018? How does Turner do on his West End debut? And, crucially, does he get his kit off?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
McDonagh’s play revolves around Padraic, an ultra-violent member of an ultra-violent republican splinter group, who returns home to Inishmore when he learns that his pet cat is ill. It’s the bloodiest of McDonagh’s plays, which really is saying something.
“This is comedy at its blackest,” winces Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★). “But a play that was hair-raisingly risky to stage in 2001, when bombing of the UK mainland was still current and the peace process was a pipe dream, now seems strangely prescient. It is obviously about Ireland, but its portrait of the sentimentality and sanctimonious rhetoric that often lies behind terrorist violence has acquired new resonance.”
“It is gleefully nasty – by the end the entire set is bedaubed with blood, body parts and cat corpses,” warns Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★). “Not that The Lieutenant of Inishmore lacks purpose – it also functions as an absolutely brutal satire on the absurdity of sectarian conflict.”
“The might of McDonagh’s writing is how it renders absurd the romance surrounding men who resort to violence in the name of freedom, who put bullets in men’s heads for a better Ireland,” analyses Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★). “It takes things to ridiculous extremes. Slaughter and sentimentality walk hand in hand.”
Some critics think the play has lost something since it first premiered, Matt Trueman (What’s On Stage) writing that “today, The Lieutenant of Inishmore merely seems a bit daft”.
“The play seems less edgy than it did when it premiered in 2001 and would feel more taut here without a superfluous interval,” considers Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★). “But the jokes still crackle, as if Father Ted has collided with Reservoir Dogs — or perhaps, more accurately, Reservoir Cats.”
Others, though, think it remains as brilliant as ever. It’s “one of McDonagh’s best: a savagely funny satirical farce on the terrorist mentality” according to Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★), while for Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★★), it is “the darkest and funniest he has ever written”.
Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, 4 stars) believes it’s still “one of the madder, braver comedies written in these islands in recent centuries”, and Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★★★) thinks that “a funnier, more chilling, more satisfying comedy you will not find”.
“Its sardonic evocation of the pain and loss from the Troubles in Ireland may (fortunately) be less immediately shocking than it was,” reckons Ben Brantley (New York Times), supplying a view from across the pond. “But the play’s paradoxical power to elicit the feelings of being both sucker-punched and tickled remains undiminished, perhaps especially for American theatergoers. At a time when senseless shootings have become almost numbingly commonplace, and nationalism is dividing a nation, Mr McDonagh’s Inishmore is looking a lot more like the United States than it ever has before.”
There are few actors whose star is shining as brightly as Aidan Turner’s right now, thanks mainly to his lead role in the BBC’s Cornish drama Poldark. His stage career, which has largely played out in Ireland thus far, has been on hold since his screen career took off. How does he fare on his return?
“The Lieutenant of Inishmore is an inspired choice for the West End debut of this dashing Irishman,” thinks Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★). “It plays to Turner’s physical prowess and natural air of command.”
“Fans of Aidan Turner may be disappointed to hear that he keeps his vest on throughout but should be pleased at how well their man gives a psychotic edge to his powers of animal magnetism,” consoles Taylor. “The sight of him wandering about, lost in sorrow, tenderly cradling the dug-up corpse of his headless pet will not be forgotten in a hurry.”
“Turner is terrific as Padraic,” says Lukowsi. “I mean, yes, he would surely be the most handsome terrorist to have ever lived, but get past the hunkiness and he is wonderful, perfectly nailing Padraic’s weirdly endearing mix of innocence, zealotry and murderous rage.”
“His Padraic is as smolderingly virile as his Poldark,” agrees Brantley. “With flashing eyes that tear up at the drop of a cat and a muscular frame made for monument-worthy poses, this Padraic is a strutting contradiction of attraction and repulsion, daring us to question our conventional notions of the heroic.”
It is, in fact, nothing but thumbs up for Turner. He’s “charismatic” and “superb” according to John Nathan (Metro, ★★★★★), “wonderfully dangerous” according to Nicole Ackman (Broadway World, ★★★★★), and “hilarious to watch” according to Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★).
Turner is, says Matt Wolf (Arts Desk, ★★★★), “a first-rate actor for whom with any luck this first step on the London stage will lead to many more to come”.
The play is still powerful then, and Turner is as arresting on stage as he is on screen. What about the efforts of director-designer duo Michael Grandage and Christopher Oram, whose recent revival of Red was a critical hit?
Some think they hit the nail on the head. “McDonagh’s play pushes its mockery to gleeful extremes and Grandage’s robust, zestful production is wonderfully on its wavelength as it escalates into a splatter-fest that makes Titus Andronicus look like Mary Poppins,” lauds Taylor.
“Grandage doesn’t direct many comedies these days, but he’s a typically dab hand,” concurs Lukowski. “He and his team deftly marshal the mounting carnage.”
“Mr Grandage, whose self-named production company did a marvellous revival of Mr McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan four years ago, has created a subversively sentimental frame for this frightening mindset,” praises Brantley. “Oram has designed a picturesque, if slovenly, storybook cottage of a set. And Adam Cork’s music is full of the blarney of Celtic lilt.”
“One feels this director’s customary creative team all working as one,” notes Wolf. “Oram’s rural Irish environs come with a peat-encrusted curtain that raises and lowers like some sort of Padraic-inspired guillotine, while Neil Austin’s lighting soaks the start of the second act in an infernal glow hinting at the bloodbath to come.”
Other reviews, though, find that they stray from satire into sitcom. “By today’s standards, it all seems a bit tame,” huffs Trueman. “By stressing Padraic’s virtue and vanity, Turner softens his threat and, on Oram’s somewhat flimsy fake-stone set, with cat corpses that look like bloodied teddy bears, it hasn’t the livewire danger to set an audience on edge. Rather than ricocheting around like a firework, Grandage’s production’s content to go at a caper; too studio sitcom to muster a spark.”
“Funny as the production is (and it is laugh-out-loud funny in places), it is also a pretty blunt instrument,” chimes Tripney. “Grandage is not going for subtlety here. The jokes are rammed home, the cartoonish comedy delivered with the force of a nail-gun.”
McDonagh’s play is a real bruiser. Some critics think it’s lost its ferocious frisson since it first debuted, but most still find it a savagely funny, brilliantly bloody satire on principled violence. And Turner doesn’t disappoint in his first West End role. He’s marvellously magnetic, the reviews concur, even if that torso stays vest-clad throughout.
There are a couple of murmurs of disapproval about the tone of Grandage’s production – does he aim too squarely at laughs? – hence the three-star reviews, but it’s mostly four-star write-ups with a smattering of fives for The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Looks like the cat has got the cream.