“One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit,” said the American silent film director Robert J Flaherty, an unseen motivating presence in Martin McDonagh’s 1996 comedy-drama The Cripple of Inishmaan.
Watching this study of an oppressively small community inhabiting one of three islands off the coast of Galway, it’s hard not to imagine McDonagh hasn’t taken a leaf out of Flaherty’s book.
Life on Inishmaan, circa 1934, is untroubled by 20th century innovations.
Gossip is the principal entertainment. Who’s feuding, who’s been caught kissing who, and which goose nipped a cat on the tail is of vital importance. So much so that Johnnypateenmike, the village’s self-appointed human headline, makes a living trading scuttlebutt for food.
Behind every story, however, there’s a real person. Sometimes there’s real heartbreak and pain.
Not that it matters much. Heartbreak and pain is more grist for the mill.
“You shouldn’t laugh at other people’s misfortunes,” says young Billy Claven to the confectionary-mad villager Bartley. True, says Bartley. “But it’s awfully funny.”
On this particular day, Johnnypateenmike (vividly brought to life by Laurence Coy) arrives with what has to be the biggest news of the year: Flaherty, the famed director of Nanook of the North, is shooting a documentary (Man of Aran – you can watch it here) on the nearby island of Inishmore.
For the bookish orphan Billy (William Rees) – “Cripple Billy” they call him, for his withered arm and halting gait – the news is potentially life-changing.
Forging a note from his doctor, Billy persuades the hulking boatman Babbybobby (John Harding) to take him to Flaherty and toward a future as an actor in America.
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Flaherty’s Man of Aran was trumpeted as a slice-of-life documentary but was, in fact, an action-packed, romanticised fiction. McDonagh does something similar here, populating his portrait of island life with archetypes in the hope of giving us a glimpse of truth.
His Inishmaaners tread a line between caricature and character. Sister shopkeepers Eileen and Kate (Sarah Aubrey and Megan O’Connell) remind one of a Beckettian double act. Bartley (Josh Anderson) is a postcard village simpleton, Johnnypateenmike is a rascal out of a folk tale.
Directed by Claudia Barrie, this production has a touch of the fairytale about it, too. Designer Brianna Russell’s sculpted paper set, suggestive of rocky cliffs as well as Inishmaan’s vernacular architecture, its textures heightened by Benjamin Brockman’s lighting.
Theatre craft is evident everywhere you look, but at this point in its development, the show does have some flat spots between McDonagh’s plot twists and busy scene changes that let the audience off the hook.
McDonagh’s characters seldom seem anything more than colourfully two-dimensional but Barrie’s cast proves adept at adding light and shade. Coy and Jude Gibson are excellent as Johnnypateenmike and the ancient alcoholic mammy he’s trying to do away with.
Jane Watt energises the stage as the mayhem-loving, cat-killing Slippy Helen. Anderson’s apple-cheeked Bartley has some gently funny moments.
Seventeen-year-old Rees performs strongly in his first major stage role. Born with a brachial plexus injury, he doesn’t need to concoct a physicality for the role. He brings his own. Likewise, his reactions to the patronising put-downs he endures rings truthfully.
The Irish accents are consistent and convincing (Amanda Lee-Stephens serves as coach) and the costuming (Emily Brayshaw) looks faithful to place and time.
I came to this production already a fan of McDonagh’s writing and it’s pleasurable to watch Inishmaan unfold as it does. You could argue that his portrait of a community gripped by cruel gossip and hearsay has contemporary resonance. But beyond that, I can’t say a reason for doing this play right now struck me with any force.