November 06, 2008

The Cripple of Inishmaan


The Cripple of Inishmaan
by Martin McDonagh

State Theatre Company
Dunstan Playhouse
November, 2008.

Irish drama is full of untruths, like the stories told by Christy Mahon, late of County Mayo, to the drinkers in Flaherty’s tavern. Those fabulous fibs promoted his reputation as The Playboy of the Western World, the title of JM Synge’s celebrated play from 1907. Ninety years later, Martin McDonagh created Billy Claven, another bare-faced liar looking to get beyond the peat wall and see the wide world.

For Billy, crippled, and belittled even by his over-protective foster aunties, the chance comes when he hears from the village tittle-tattle JohnnyPateenMike that the famous American director, Robert Flaherty, is on the neighbouring island of Inishmore, looking for actors for his 1934 movie, The Man of Aran.

Mixing fact with fiction and precociously reworking the tropes and tribulations from writings by Synge, Sean O’Casey, and others, McDonagh creates a thick stew of Irishisms – stereotypes, grotesques, shaggy jokes, sentimental situations and bitter twists. The Cripple of Inishmaan is a romance thwarted by circumstance and authorial mischief. The elements are no sooner recognizable than they are subverted. The promise of a kiss becomes a slap, a moment of kindness snaps into a brutal beating with an iron bar.

McDonagh’s writing hovers somewhere between Synge, Beckett and Father Ted and in State Theatre’s final production for the year, director Adam Cook has inclined to the latter. He milks the ponderous comedy, especially in the opening scenes, while also seeking its darker aspect. Designer Ailsa Paterson’s striking design features carefully detailed rustic settings on a revolve, with huge ribs of timber in the background and a foreground of beach stones. Composer Stuart Day’s assemblage of folksongs adds to an authenticity which is in deliberate tension with the incipient absurdity of the characters.

There are amusing turns from Jacqy Phillips and Carmel Johnson as the aunts, Patrick Graham plays a sinister split personality in BabbyBobby, Luke Clayson and Cat Lever redefine sibling rivalry as Bartley and Helen, and Paul Blackwell is excellent as the ever-prying JohnnyPatteen. Jamie Harding’s Billy, the young man who distorts the truth in order to find it out, is also well-judged.

Adam Cook and his cast carry us artfully through the evening but McDonagh can only lampoon his subject so far, and pull the rug out from under the pathos so often, before the artifice of the play wears thin. Unlike his first play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, written a year earlier, The Cripple of Inishmaan is victim of its own pastiche, and, in so ruthlessly mocking sentiment, runs the risk of having no heart at all.

Murray Bramwell

The Australian, November 6, 2008, p.

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