By Martin McDonagh. Directed by Matthew Bissett. An Ensemble Theatre Company production. At the Jericho Arts Centre on Friday, July 11. Continues in rep until August 13
This is an extremely handsome production, but the script and venue conspire against it.
In The Cripple of Inishmaan, playwright Martin McDonagh conjures the isolated Irish island that’s also known as Inis Meáin. It’s 1934 and a Hollywood film crew is shooting a documentary called Man of Aran on a neighbouring chunk of rock. (This documentary exists in real life.) The presence of the film crew stirs dreams of escape and fulfillment in 19-year-old Billy Claven. But Billy, who has a withered arm and stiff leg, is also tied to the island: he’s smitten with a local beauty named Helen McCormick, despite her vicious and bullying ways.
Struggling to achieve self-respect and connection, Billy becomes our avatar. And as harsh, lonely Inishmaan becomes a metaphor for the fragility of life, the importance of the stories we tell ourselves emerges. Billy is an orphan. Why did his parents abandon him?
These subjects arise within a simple plot; almost nothing happens in Act 1. In terms of entertainment, McDonagh relies largely on language and eccentricity. Every character he puts on-stage is its own curiosity shop: tics pour out of them slathered in brogue.
This is where I start to distrust McDonagh. His characters feel about as real as leprechauns—and, in their rural Irishness, just as cliché. One of the two unmarried sisters who have raised Billy talks to rocks when under stress. Mammy, the nonagenarian mother of the village gossip, Johnnypateenmike, has been drunk for decades. There’s fun to be had in the vivacity of all of this, but it also feels condescending—kind of like we’ve gone to the zoo to watch the Irish poor.
Characters have light and shadow; kindness and cruelty emerge from unlikely sources. Still, McDonagh creates a land of broad strokes, not nuance, and for me at least, it’s not enough to carry the evening: in Act 1, I was happy to watch the actors paint their characters; by Act 2, I wanted more of a payoff.
Then again, the venue was stinking hot. The show ran two hours and 40 minutes on opening night and the Jericho Arts Centre was an oven. In a cooler theatre, I might have fared better.
Whatever the case, under Matthew Bissett’s direction, the production standards in this non-Equity mounting are very, very high. The weathered boards in John Bessette’s set design (the island store run by Billy’s “aunties”) achieve truly elegant simplicity. Darren Hales lights this set evocatively. And costumer Naomi Lazarus finds texture and individuality within an appropriately limited palette. Thanks to dialect coach Brian Parkinson, the accents are consistently authentic, which is a big deal.
And perhaps most importantly, the acting is all of a high standard. Some of it is truly impressive. Erik Gow is seamlessly in character as the goodhearted but dim Bartley, who takes forever when purchasing candy. And the scene in which Billy (Max Wallace) persuades the tough-talking Babbybobby (Paul Herbert) to row him to the filming is a highlight. Herbert grasps the full emotional size of the character and Wallace shows why he’s stellar throughout: he inhabits his character and he listens.
Wait for a cool night. Take water.