REVIEW: ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore’, Noël Coward Theatre

The Lieutenant of Inishmore‘, Noël Coward Theatre

“Ye have killed me cat and ye’ve ruined me life”.

  Ireland, 1993.

  ‘Mad Padraic’ is busy pulling out the toenails of a Belfast drug-pusher. When the phone rings, however, and he learns that Wee Thomas, his cat and best friend in all the world, is off his food, he breaks down in tears, and rushes home to the island of Inishmore before it is too late.

  But it is too late. His cat, Wee Thomas, is dead. So dead, in fact, half his head is missing.

  Mad Padriac, a man considered too violent for the IRA, is a member of splinter-group INLA. However, he wants to create his own splinter-group – a splinter splinter-group.

  This angers fellow INLA members, Christy, Brendan and Joey, who want him dead.

  Was Wee Thomas’ death an accident? Or was it just a ploy to lure Padraic out?

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Chris Walley (Davey) and Denis Conway (Donny) in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  Michael Grandage directs Martin McDonagh’s hilarious black comedy ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore‘, a brutal exploration of the terrorist mentality, in this shockingly explicit production that, though outrageously funny, holds a mirror to the needlessness and the insanity of modern violence.

  The production begins with Denis Conway‘s Donny and Chris Walley‘s Davey stood either side of a kitchen table, their eyes fixed on the bloodied corpse of a cat that lies atop it. Straight away, we’re introduced to this rather morbid tone – one that is not only maintained, but exacerbated, as the play progresses. Donny, father to Padraic, picks the cat up by its tail, at which a trickle of blood (not to mention some brains) spill out. There is no doubting that this cat is dead.  However, young Davey, the person that stands accused of, not just running over the cat with his bicycle, but deliberately aiming for it, and then reversing back over it, is hopeful – he suggests that it might be in a coma, or perhaps a trip to the vets might help. An injection?   Later, he will show a similar optimism, when his hands are being tied behind his back and Padraic is seconds from shooting him – on his knees, he lightly questions whether Padraic is simply going to tickle him and Donny – he tries to make light of it. Like McDonagh himself, the character tries to find humour in the darkest and seemingly most humourless of scenarios. And it works. Although, of course, nothing, not even a bit of humour, can stop such violence. Towards the end of the play, it begins to dawn on Davey just how bad things are, and he realises that things are only going to get worse. However, despite this, he is no longer afraid – at the end, he readily confronts Padraic, insults both him and his “feck” of a cat, and kneels, bravely, seemingly ready to face his impending execution.

  Outraged at this early accusation, however, Davey pleads his innocence to Donny, stating that the only thing he can be found guilty of is moving the body before professional help arrived. He believes the cat to have been Donny’s, yet when Donny states that he was merely looking after the cat for his son, Davey’s face drops, and he starts to tremble, visibly fear-stricken. It is here that the audience are provided with their first impression of Padraic, and it’s certainly not a positive one. 

Chris Walley (Davey) in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  Despite Davey’s protests, however, Donny doesn’t believe him, and there seems to be some dissent amongst audience members as to whether or not we do. One thing is certain – we want to. The character goes so far as to prove his innocence with evidence or, more accurately, a lack of. He wheels his pink bicycle onto the stage and, sure enough, there are no brains stuck to the spokes of his wheels. Donny backs Davey into a figurative corner – he says that he will tell Padraic it was him, if he doesn’t confess. So, rather reluctantly, Davey confesses to this crime, and the fake testimonials of characters that will appear later, also accusing him, seem to conclusively brand him as guilty. However, we soon regret ever having doubted this character.

  Amongst this rather comical exchange between Donny and Davey, what is clear from the off is that the death, the murder, of this cat, is very much a focus of the production, and it is from this that events spiral out of control. It is this murder that becomes the motivator for much further bloodshed. So much bloodshed, in fact, it seems almost ridiculous. However, that is the point – something so seemingly accidental has such far-reaching consequences, that neither characters nor audience see coming – and the brutality, the barbarism, that dominates the end of the play, a play that started with the death a cat, is outlandish.

  When we first see Aidan Turner‘s Padraic, he arrives on stage wearing blood-spattered clothing, and wipes a blade on his shirt, as his torture victim James is lowered, upside down, bare-chested, from the ceiling, ankles bound, blood trickling down his leg, a result of his having two toenails removed. This initial image appears to cement all we have heard about Padraic – he really does appear as this unhinged, unstable man, whose love of violence far exceeds that of even the most violent terrorist groups. However, the character, clueless as to his own nature, begins to defend his actions. He claims that he was being ‘nice’ to James for removing just two toenails, and they from the same foot. He could have removed all ten toenails. He could have removed one from each foot (in which case the character would be limping on both feet). He could have, (god forbid!), removed big ones. But he didn’t, he just removed two small ones, from the same foot. He even encourages James to visit the hospital afterwards, to get a tetanus jab, and to ensure he doesn’t develop sepsis. Because, of course, that’s the last thing he’d want.

  Despite Padraic’s plea of being “such a nice fella”, James is not convinced. He keeps using his hands to push himself away, to maneuver himself around Padraic. We learn that the reason James is being tortured at all is because he was ‘pushing’ drugs on children. So, Padraic does have some sense of morality, some form of moral compass, although its point is seriously off, his viewpoint on the world, hugely distorted.

Aidan Turner (Padraic) in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  Just as the two are discussing which of James’ nipples should be sliced off, Padraic’s mobile rings, and he seems so elated when he hears his dad’s voice, – “Dad, ya bastard, how are you? (To James) It’s me dad”. After filling his dad in regarding his latest terrorist activity, which mainly involved the blowing up of chip shops in the region, Donny tells Padraic that Wee Thomas is poorly, he’s off his food – Donny’s plan was to let Padraic down easy, to give him the bad news in stages. This week, he would be poorly, next week, he’d have gone downhill, the week after, he’d be dead, having died peacefully in his sleep. Padraic would never know.

  However, Padraic takes this news worse than imagined, and becomes frantic with worry, like that of a parent concerning their child – “Put Wee Thomas on the phone”. As he is advising his dad, telling him to cover the cat with a blanket, and keep stroking and stroking him, we see James begin to develop a wry smile. He spies a weakness, a vulnerability, in Padraic, and with this vulnerability, comes an opportunity for him to escape with his life. When the phone call ends, Padraic throws the phone to the ground and shoots it several times, before dropping to his knees and weeping, running his hands through his hair. James, trying to conceal his excitement at having unearthed this weakness, pretends to be genuinely concerned, even offering advice of how he once treated his own cat, that he loved more than anything else in the world, for ringworm, and that Wee Thomas probably had the same. A clever move, albeit a false one – Padraic did indeed let him go – on account of James’ apparent bond with his own cat. But of course, James doesn’t have a cat.

Brian Martin (James) in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  Later, Davey’s sister, Charlie Murphy‘s Mairead waits to meet Padraic getting off the boat at Inishmore. She puts on red lipstick whilst singing ‘The Patriot Game’, and Padraic joins in with her when he arrives. Despite initially mistaking her for a boy wearing lipstick, owing to her cropped hair and army trousers, he soon recognises her, remembering the eleven year old that begged to go with him to free the north. Now sixteen, Mairead is just as eager to go, and once again pleads with him to take her, after failing to persuade him to take her on a date. Having overheard a trio of INLA members planning to kill Padraic, she’d planned to impart this news, but due to his refusal to allow her to go with him, instead, she tells him that Wee Thomas is over the worst of his illness, and he is so happy, he kisses her, and what begins as a chaste show of gratitude becomes something quite sensual, so much so, that when Padraic slowly pulls away, Mairead appears to be frozen.

  When he leaves, bound for his cottage, expecting to see Wee Thomas alive and well, Mairead continues singing. Now, however, the words she sings appear to hold much more weight, not only for her, but also for the audience – “I think of the traitors who bargained and sold…out the Patriot Game”. These lyrics become startlingly relevant – she has just betrayed Padraic, she has sold him out. She realises this, and the audience sense it in the way she appears to pay more attention to the lyrics – she appears to meditate on the words, understanding the gravity of what she has done.

  We are introduced to Mairead earlier in the production, when she shoots her brother in the cheek with an air rifle. We learn of her political protest – her attempts to bring down the meat trade, by shooting out the eyes of cows in the vicinity. Ironic? Later, she shoots out the eyes of three men just as easily, before killing another man, which she refers to, on reflection, as “dull”. Mairead is just one of many youngsters, as with Joey and Brendan, that appear to fight for a cause they cannot possibly understand, and only understand the gravity of carrying out certain acts when it is too late. Such youths are disillusioned, and perhaps drawn in by vain appeals of certain groups and organisations, perhaps influenced, if not manipulated, by the views of older generations. However, they often find the reality to be very different.

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Aidan Turner (Padraic) and Charlie Murphy (Mairead) in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  Despite the darkly comic nature of the play, the final image is one that is so very shocking, so graphically gruesome. Blood is spattered around the whitewashed walls of the cottage, dismembered body parts are strewn across the stage, disturbingly realistic. The audience are horrified at the end of this play, and rightly so. This is a lasting image that will haunt the mind. 

  Perhaps the reason for this is that the ending seems so unexpected, this very grim reality doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the rest of the play, one that was so funny. And yet, though on a slightly lesser scale, violence has been present throughout. This is, on the whole, a very violent play. However, as with the last couple of scenes, such violence is exacerbated so far, and so fast, that the whole tone of the play changes completely, and immediately laughter is halted. There is nothing funny about the grim scene we are confronted with at the play’s end. Padraic sitting on the corpse of Christy, stroking his dead cat, whose corpse he exhumed, dazed, distant, whilst Donny and Davey saw the bodies of young Brendan and Joey into more manageable pieces – this is utter barbarism, and a very haunting image. And yet, it is only a small scale look, just the tip of the iceberg, into the kind of violence that results from the actions of such paramilitary organisations, and terrorist groups.

Denis Conway (Donny), Chris Walley (Davey), and Aidan Turner (Padraic) in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  This is a satire on terrorism. A play about terrorism, that is very much anti-terrorism. A violent play, that is anti-violence. What is almost laughable about the plot of this play is that, despite mentions of mass slaughters, at the hands of both the British and the Irish, and bombings, etc, the thing that causes so much upset, so much grief, and so much bloodshed, here, is the death of a cat. This becomes an act of war, a political protest, in which members of a group attempt to do away with a member insisting on forming his own splinter group. A conflict of interests, between people that are ultimately fighting for the same thing, but have very different ways of going about it, of achieving what they want. By having the murder of a cat as the cause of so much barbarism, McDonagh is almost comparing this murder to even larger scale acts of violence, political protests, that had much more devastating, more tragic, and more far-reaching consequences. However, in this comparison, in this fusion of the seemingly trivial, and the serious, McDonagh is not suggesting the death of a cat to be as good an excuse for violence, as other acts; rather, he is suggesting that other acts are as feeble an excuse. The murder of this cat is no better or worse than any other excuse to incite violence, and that is because no excuse is ever enough. No reason is reason enough.

  On another level, it could be said that the play is one that highlights the importance, the value, of animal life. During such times of trouble, all, human or animal, are affected, all butchered, all equal.

  At the end of the production, Mairead and Padraic begin to sing ‘The Dying Rebel’. Padriac, forgetting the third line of the song, looks to Mairead for guidance – “something about brave men perishing?”. This line seems so incredibly fitting here. When Mairead shoots him, he becomes yet another brave Irish man to have perished during The Troubles. Whether a good or a bad man here is besides the point – he was a man, and a brave one at that, willing to do whatever he truly believed was necessary in order to free his country. And once again, Mairead finds these words to have come true for her, with an added poignancy – ““I stood alone where brave men perished. Those men have gone, their God to meet”.

  What’s notable about this play is that Mad Padraic isn’t a character that can be easily labelled as a protagonist or an antagonist. In fact, he cannot even be readily labelled as a flawed protagonist, or an heroic antagonist, either. Writer McDonagh interestingly chooses to introduce the audience to two other characters first, and in doing so, the fearsome reputation of Padraic precedes him – it is the discussion of other character’s that influence the minds of the audience, that manipulate our expectations, and thus far, appear to be setting him up as an antagonistic character. Indeed, this is cemented by the fact that the first time we do see him, he is torturing a man.

Chris Walley (Davey), Aidan Turner (Padraic) and Denis Conway (Donny) in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Photo credit: Johan Persson

  However, very quickly, Turner’s masterful characterisation and rough, very rough, charm, draws us in and, whether we want to be or not, we find ourselves strangely endeared to this man and, occasionally, even pity him. There’s no doubting that this is a very troubled, very disturbed soul, with a somewhat distorted outlook on the world – and the audience acknowledges this, if not understands it – and yet… there are moments, however fleeting, of desperate, pitiful humanity. We connect with him as a result of his profound connection with Wee Thomas. When he is not torturing others, shooting imposter cats or bombing chip shops, we glimpse the humane skeleton of an inhumane man, a glimmer of morality, however, brief, in this immoral being. 

  Although this play is set during The Troubles in Ireland, and therefore is specific, its themes are no longer limited to those circumstances, to those contexts. The actions of paramilitary organisations and terrorist groups are so widespread, so common, today, that the play has gained a newfound significance. A significance that resonates perhaps with more audience members, including younger generations, than ever before, given that all are similarly affected by terrorism today. The production therefore has a profound meaning for us today, its ability to shock, its brutality, profound.

  McDonagh’s play is very bold, very brave, in what it sets out to accomplish, and Grandage’s production deals with the text unflinchingly, not shying away from any of the finer, and more graphic, details. McDonagh, so skilfully, was able to find, and to write about, such humour, in such terrible, such dark, circumstances. Although on the surface, the play may not sound like it will be a laugh a minute, it is. A laugh every few seconds, in fact. In trying to make sense of something so senseless, McDonagh is able to extract humour, and the production skilfully maintains this darkly comic element.

  In the final scene of the production, a black cat appears at the window of the cottage. Wee Thomas. “All this terror has been for absolutely nothing”. “Four dad fellas, two dead cats”, such bloodshed, was for nothing. Despite the foregone humour, there is a bitter poignancy to the final scene, and therefore to this production as a whole, in which humour is employed to mask, to shield, the savage reality of modern terrorism, which explodes onto the stage with such shocking realism at the play’s powerful close.

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The cast of The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Photo credit: Johan Persson

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