Set in 1934,The Cripple of Inishmaan describes the arrival of a Hollywood director to an island near the small, rural community of Inishmaan. Not only more titillating than the reported news of a cat biting a goose’s tail, the promise of outside contact brings a particular sort of hope for Cripple Billy, an unloved boy whose chief form of amusement is gazing at cows to alleviate his endless boredom. The convenience store where Billy lives with his two elderly “aunts” is a place of communal gathering which draws on a host of Irish theatre traditions from Synge to O’Casey.
Reaching into these traditions, Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh creates a world whose inhabitants are stunted and spirit-starved, where hope is a danger to the merciless orders they know and where the only surviving humour is for the audience, dark and painfully violent.
Part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, this production marks yet another successful partnership between McDonagh and Druid, who have already staged his Leenane trilogy (The Lonesome West, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara) to much critical acclaim.
The Cripple was, of course, excellently cast and displayed wonderfully directed comic ease, pace and tension. The set was a high-budget moving construction which managed to allow for beach-side, bedroom and shop but at the expense of fluidity as all-in-black stage hands scurried around between scenes.
Perhaps this was only a small deterrent for this picky critic, the large majority of the audience clapping between each scene as an expression of their enjoyment (and indeed a sign of the production’s excellent understanding of scene development and climax). The production was funny and refreshingly tight, but it could have been more violent. We must ask ourselves, especially as part of a Dublin Theatre Festival in 2008 (not 1934), what purpose a play like this serves for a contemporary Irish audience. At one point Cripple Billy says, “Well there’s plenty round here just as crippled as me, only it isn’t on the outside it shows.” This observation is at the very heart of the play and cleverly underlies all of the entertaining dialogue and caricatures. The violence behind McDonagh’s work is what makes him one of the most original contemporary Irish playwrights and, had it not been so tame in the staging, the merciless attitude to the human condition might have come across stronger, giving us something more poignant to take away from the Olympia.
The Cripple of Inishmaan returns to Dublin from 18 to 22 November at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire.