Nineteen ninety-seven may be a young theater year, but perhaps it’s not too early to celebrate the arrival of a fully mature new playwriting talent. Last year, Martin McDonagh made waves – more so elsewhere than on these pages – with his debut play, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” at the Royal Court. Any fears that his follow-up effort, “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” might prove a case of sophomore slump are dispelled by a play that improves on the earlier one in every way. Nicholas Hytner’s glorious Royal National Theater production does McDonagh’s pungent idiosyncrasies proud.
“Cripple” may be too quirky for mainstream consumption: It couldn’t be further from the heightened lyricism of Brian Friel and Sebastian Barry, to cite two older contemporary Irish dramatists whose work has regularly traveled internationally or is about to. (Though born to Irish parents, McDonagh, only 26, grew up and lives in south London.) And yet, for those attuned to the script’s quicksilver changes in mood, all of which are captured beautifully by Hytner and his company, “Cripple” prompts the gratifying shiver of excitement one feels at encountering a true original. This play will last, and if there’s any justice, the production will, too.
A flintier, feistier writer than the generation of Irish poet-playwrights before him, McDonagh is nonetheless as fully Irish in his concerns as the characters’ names suggest – Johnnypateenmike evokes a distillation of Synge (Pegeen Mike, anyone?) as conceived by James Joyce, and it’s hardly McDonagh’s fault that Babbybobby may remind musical buffs of the opening lyrics to “Company.” From a reveling in language and the lure of America to the English oppression of Ireland, “Cripple” offers a fresh take on all the great Irish themes. After all, it’s not everyone who can re-imagine two countries’ enduring divide as a fiercely comic encounter involving the breaking of eggs.
Comic bluntness was a trademark of “Beauty Queen,” but McDonagh has honed it far more artfully here, with the result that the play has an emotional and structural coherence missing from its predecessor. The orphaned Billy, the adolescent “cripple” of the title, is disabled, but never once is his disability mawkishly played. (Significantly, the one seemingly maudlin interlude turns out to be the cleverest of jokes.) Instead, he’s the focal point of an island community off the western coast of Ireland in 1934 – “a fence and a hen” are the local sites, observes Kate (Anita Reeves), one of two “aunts” (they are not technically related) who dote on Billy – given over to staring at cows, searching for sweets and spinning quintessentially Irish tall tales.
When filmmaker Robert Flaherty arrives at the neighboring island of Inishmore to make his celebrated “Man of Aran,” Inishmaan goes into a tailspin, not least Billy, who sees the exotic foreigners as his chance for a new life. While Babbybobby (Gary Lydon) is initially reluctant to ferry Billy to the island (a cripple, he says, is bad luck) they nonetheless set off, accompanied by Helen (Aisling O’Sullivan), a tough-talking, sex-mad bruiser who returns from the “Man of Aran” location to discover to her annoyance that she had been seducing the wrong (i.e., least influential) crewmen. It’s Billy, of course, who confounds everyone by getting tapped by Hollywood, only to return home when the community isn’t expecting it (in one of Hytner’s neatest staging coups).
“Cripple” begins as a slice-of-life comedy written in a language as gently absurdist as the sloping lines of Bob Crowley’s gliding sets, elegantly lit by Mark Henderson. It soon deepens, however, into an investigation of a series of mysteries whose solutions have an invariably wondrous payoff. Why did Billy’s parents drown themselves? Chronic storyteller Johnnypateenmike (Ray McBride) may have the answer – if his yarns can be trusted. What happened to Billy in Hollywood? The answer arrives via Billy’s poignant rebirth – the kiss of life included – at the hands of an island people who work overtime not to seem sentimental.
For a play as tender as “Cripple,” violence and death are never far away, whether in Johnnypateenmike’s wish to do away with his drunkard nonagenarian mother (Doreen Hepburn) or in Babbybobby’s determination to be a “hard character,” even when his impulses suggest otherwise. Then there’s Helen, a take-no-prisoners teenager who accepts the wheezing Billy’s invitation to go for a walk, but not before pressing down hard on a bandaged head that Billy incurred at the hand of Babbybobby’s lead pipe.
Do such incidents make the play cruel? Honest, I would say, is more like it: Only once, in a speech about who in society is truly crippled, does McDonagh succumb to the canned sanctimony that the writing otherwise mocks. The cast certainly catch every prismatic shift in tone, starting with Ruaidhri Conroy’s remarkably open-faced Billy, the play’s resident reader and thinker. (A portrait of the artist as a young man?) As the “aunts,” Reeves and Dearbhla Molloy are an incomparable double-act, the one a more stolid Betty Boop, the other given to quiet tears of concern when not struggling to do a brisk business in peas. As Bartley, a local lad whose fondness for telescopes rivals Helen’s aggressive lust for men, Owen Sharpe is never more endearing than at the start of act two, when he rejoices in his own alliterative skills.
Orchestrating McDonagh’s separate prowess is Hytner, whose attentiveness is subtly evident throughout. Watch the body language of the ensemble, seated side by side in a makeshift cinema as they screen the Inishmaan premiere of “Man of Aran.” Or the interplay between the two aunts, rescued by a prevailing integrity from the sitcom cuteness that bedeviled “Beauty Queen.” Are people ever as good as we think or want them to be? That’s one of this play’s enduring questions, one that its director ensures we hear, posed by a writer who, like Billy, has taken “his heart in his hands” and delivered it up to a hungry, receptive audience.