The Cripple of Inishmaan

Pauline Mannix as mamma, Mike Venner as The Doctor, and Malcolm George as Johnnypateenmike in Beehive Theatre Co's production of Martin McDonagh's 'The Cripple of Inishmaan.'

Pauline Mannix as mamma, Mike Venner as The Doctor, and Malcolm George as Johnnypateenmike in Beehive Theatre Co's production of Martin McDonagh's 'The Cripple of Inishmaan.'

How you serve the rural desperations of Martin McDonagh’s reimagining of a bygone Irish landscape largely defines what an audience takes away from it. From the early Leenane Trilogy to The Lieutenant of Inishmore, McDonagh’s riff is largely focused on tearing the heart out of his subjects and presenting grotesqueness at its most beastly. Mostly directors have chosen to overkill on this aspect. For The Cripple of Inishmaan, strangely McDonagh blurs the horror in the narrative in favour of a touch of sentimentality which has led some critics to declare that he has a heart after all. Druid took Cripple two years ago and presented a beautiful illumination on the dichotomy of character, good and evil, all in the one person. Aaron Monaghan as Cripple Billy will never be forgotten for his consummation of the role; like Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, his physical and mental inhabitation of Billy was complete. Although Druid’s outing of the play deserved all the accolades it got, Beehive, a lesser known theatre company in Dingle, have just presented Cripple on a smaller stage, with a smaller budget and captured even more intimately the nuanced essence of McDonagh’s treatment.

In this play, above all of McDonagh’s West of Ireland plays, we are reminded of an era when it wasn’t mean-spirited to use aptly descriptive but mean sobriquets about and for the people we love. We are taken back to a time when prejudicial language existed without malice and was born out of isolation. Malcolm George and Wendela Rosenberg Polak’s handling of the play expertly captures the innocence of this position. It is not labelled as crude ignorance but interpreted in the minutiae the writer’s keen understanding of the people he portrays as sympathetic human beings all crippled by economic want and loneliness. Because of their engaged understanding of the text, George and Polak direct the superb cast to deliver a production of Cripple that is equally if not more illuminating of character as Druid’s.

The sisters, played by Trish Hendrick and Trish Howley, evocatively invent a pair of older women soaked in that mix of cuteness, naivety and unquestioned acceptance of boredom; its mild relief in Johnpateenmike’s gossip and their undoubted love for orphan Billy whom they refer to as 'Cripple' without meaning insult or injury. So convincing is Trish Howley as confider in stones, she inhabits Kate with a completeness that elicits laughter and empathy on a balanced scale. She is quite unforgettable for the realistic portrayal she brings to the role that eschews caricture in favour of realism. Equally Trish Hendrick encapsulates in her Eileen both the innocence and wisdom of the character who does not know what a screen test is, has a penchant for sweets and knows how to soothe her sister.

Johnpateenmike’s alcoholic mother played by Pauline McCarthy delivers her character’s comical moments and barbed invectives to her son with the textured ingenuity of a relaxed professional comedian who paces her delivery in timely seamlessness. As Johnpateenmike, Malcolm George excels as the mean spirited harbinger of useless and bad news - the man that is as much despised among his community as he is needed. Aidan O’Shea’s haunted seaman Babbybobby is a tad understated, his anguish and subsequent anger not brought to fruition, and although Ciara O’Connell’s Helen is a great bitch, her irritations are sometimes overemphasised with too much upward eye movement. Dubhaltach Tracey’s Bartley is a winning comic realisation of a sycophant who chases with the hound and runs with the hare, while Mike Venner’s Doctor is a competent portrayal of a weary but concerned local GP. Fionn O’Neill's mental inhabitation of Billy is superb. He serves the sadness, the drollness and indeed the mischievous nature of his character with aplomb but his physicality is not as convincing as it could be (having seen Aaron’s physical portrayal of Cripple Billy caveats this observation). However it has to be said that the few flaws in the acting are by far outshone by the overall brilliant and affecting portrayals.

Malcolm George’s sparse set of an under-stocked shop with stacks of peas stage left and an almost empty centre stage is aesthetically complementary to the setting, effective and functional for the various scene changes. Likewise lighting is simple and in harmony with the drama.

There is always the terror that a play opening in a rural setting with apron clad elderly women will veer towards over reliance on the laughter strings to the detriment of the writer’s intention. The intelligence of George and Polak’s direction restrains the pastiche in favour of sympathetic realism as they subtly reign the satirical into a powerful mix of tragedy and comedy. The characters’ own fullness in McDonagh’s shaping guide their direction and the realization of his story in Cripple is astonishingly touching. Through the wonderful inventive cast, plenty of laughs are served without ever sacrificing the pivotal points of the underlying dysfunction of rural boredom, its affiliate sadness and inherent goodness in the face of adversity.

 Breda Shannon is a freelance writer and reviews books for The Irish Examiner.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh

16, 23, 30 Sept 2010

Produced by Beehive Theatre Company

Directed by Wendela Rosenberg Polak and Malcolm George

Set and Lighting Design: Malcolm George

With: Trish Hendricks, Trish Howley, Malcolm George, Fionn O’Neill, Dubhaltach Tracey, Ciara O’Connell, Aidan O’Shea, Mike Venner and Pauline McCarthy.