Martin McDonagh may be known for penning provocative, grisly tales fraught with startling depictions of domestic homicide (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West), drunken skull smashing (A Skull in Connemara) and, in last year's Tony-nominated jaw-dropper The Pillowman, electrocution, crucifixion and premature burial. But in his latest portrait of the dark and disturbing corners of small-town Irish life, the likewise Tony-nominated The Lieutenant of Inishmore, those wickedly macabre, Grand Guignol theatrics are taken to a new level. There's a mutilated cat, heaps of hacked-up body parts and buckets of blood smeared across the stage.
Despite the newly raised bar, McDonagh insists that Inishmore is as violent as he's ever likely to get. "I don't think you can get more gory," observes the 36-year-old playwright with a laugh, over the phone from his home base in London. "This is as far as I ever wanted to push any of the violence. It's all there for a political point. But it's as extreme a play, in every way, as I would ever care to write."
Although Inishmore revels in a depraved, amoral (if sardonically humorous) world, there is a salient point to the graphic violence. Both savagely funny and rapturously enlightening, the play functions as a pointed skewering of terrorism and violence. And like the best of McDonagh's work, it's a marvel of impeccably crafted storytelling that giddily tosses taboos to the wind and repeatedly subverts the audience's expectations.
Set on a remote, rocky island, the play revolves around a group of witless Irish terrorists and their psychotic, cat-loving leader Padraic (David Wilmot), who blows up chip shops and tortures drug dealers with glee. When his beloved cat, Wee Thomas, is brutally killed while in the care of Padraic's blubbering father, Donny (Peter Gerety), the old man and his dim-bulb teenage neighbor, Davey (Domhnall Gleeson), fall into full-on panic mode about how the unhinged terrorist will react. The inept pair attempt to rectify the mess, setting in motion an outrageous and gruesome series of events. Despite all the bloodletting, McDonagh insists that he's not trying to shock people for the simple sake of entertainment. His goal is to create well-constructed yarns that entertain while also provoking discussion and thought. "I would never want to repulse somebody in a theatre. I've never set out to piss people off or make them angry, necessarily, or disgust them," he asserts. "I can't think of a stupider thing to do. People pay a lot of money to come [to the theatre]."
Still, as a controversial, onetime enfant terrible of the British theatre, McDonagh is quite familiar with setting off sparks - both in his plays and life. He's endured alcohol-fueled brushes with the tabloids, including a well-chronicled run-in with Sean Connery at the London Evening Standard Awards in 1996. And back in the mid-1990's, Inishmore was rejected by McDonagh's champions at the National Theatre due to the play's temperature-raising subject matter.
Yet despite this Angry Young Man persona, McDonagh is engaging, funny and unfailingly polite during our phone conversation, punctuating his responses with bursts of mischievous laughter.
Raised in London, with summers spent in his parents' native Ireland, McDonagh finished school at age 16. He skipped college, went on welfare and soon began cranking out short stories. He even tried his hand at radio plays, but all of his submissions were roundly rejected. In 1994 his brother John moved to California to pursue a screenwriting fellowship, and McDonagh found himself living at home with no one around. It was then that he began writing stage plays. They poured out of him at a furious pace. He penned the Tony Award-winning Beauty Queen in just eight days. Within a year and a half, he had churned out seven plays, including The Pillowman, the Leenane trilogy and the Aran Islands trilogy (which includes The Lieutenant of Inishmore).
Recalls McDonagh of his remarkable creative burst: "The years of practicing dialogue and story all came together when I tried to write plays. Everything seemed to fall into place."
By the age of 27, he had four plays running simultaneously in the West End. Stateside audiences embraced him even more enthusiastically. In 1999 he became the most frequently performed playwright (after Shakespeare) in North America. Four of his plays have reached Broadway, and each one has enjoyed a lengthy run and was nominated for multiple Tony Awards, including Best Play.
Having nabbed a 2006 Oscar for his short film "Six Shooter," McDonagh plans to spend the next several years working on film projects, including his first feature, "In Bruges," which he's in the process of casting. But reports of him hanging up his playwriting quill have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, he already has ideas for his next couple of plays, which he plans to set in America. "My intention isn't to move to Hollywood and become a film director," he explains. "But I'd like to try to make [at least] one really good film."
Yet with this production of Inishmore McDonagh admits that he stands at a crossroads in his life. "I always knew that this would be the end of the chapter of me as a younger writer. So I just want to grow up and learn and travel a bit more and find some other things to write about. Of course, I'm going to keep writing plays because they come pretty easy [to me] and, happily, I've had the greatest possible success that I could have ever dreamed of. But at some point, you need to be quiet, and go back to your roots, and remember why you're a writer in the first place."