To say Martin McDonagh helps us laugh at ourselves is to oversimplify. With him, we laugh at representations of ourselves that have been presented over centuries: by writers, fabulists, mythmakers, self-appointed patriots, or indeed “terrorists”, as here, in The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
McDonagh brings the exile’s critical distance, but also the exile’s confusion: a kind of hand-me-down, Ireland-by-hearsay is his dramatic world, allowing him to eschew realism and chronology — characters straight out of bastardised Synge brush shoulders with ones who speak like they’re in Reservoir Dogs: pedantic psychopaths who quibble over quotations.
McDonagh, in other words, ransacks the culture, and, at his best, provokes laughter by his irreverence.
Certainly, there is no reverence in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which puts the “physical force tradition” squarely in its crosshairs and lets rip. The play centres on Mad Padraic (Paul Mescal), a young man too crazy for the IRA, and considering splintering off from his splinter group, the INLA.
That plan is derailed by the apparent death of his best friend, Wee Thomas, the cat. So, he returns to Inishmore, bent on vengeance. Meanwhile, his bumbling father and local lad Davey, played by the Cork pairing of DonWycherley and Young Offenders’ Alex Murphy, hatch schemes to hide the truth of the cat’s fate.
So far, so ridiculous. And McDonagh’s targets are worthy of ridicule. Yet, the alphabet soup of initialisms and the tawdry antics of pathetic hardline provos has already played out for real in recent years. What use, then, is satire when the target is already, pardon the pun, exploded?
In our post-peace process age, what we get is a play in need of a new context. Unfortunately, in this production, by Andrew Flynn, it doesn’t get it. Flynn’s sure and steady approach has much clarity, and plenty of laughs. It might have made sense in the teeth of widespread political violence. But here, they are safe laughs, not even, really, cathartic ones.
McDonagh always approached his Irish materials with irreverence. Perhaps it’s time his own work was approached in a similar spirit.