On Saturday night I attended my first ever play at the legendary Gaiety theatre in Dublin. Built in 1871 it is Ireland’s oldest continuously running theatre (Smock Alley is older but only recently reopened). Famed for its annual three month summer season of Riverdance to fleece American tourists; and its Christmas pantomime; it also stages plays and musicals throughout the rest of the year. With seating for over 2000 people it is the grand old dame of Dublin theatre, designed in a deeply gaudy manner. Naturally I loved it. Having done a bit of research I was unsurprised to discover the at the upper circle of the theatre was a place where fancy gentlemen used to congregate for encounters, at the time where such shenanigans were illegal.
The play I attended was ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ by Martin McDonagh. This is a dark comedy about ‘Cripple’ Billy Claven – a physically disabled, teenaged orphan living on Inishmaan (one the Aran Islands) in the 1930s. A Hollywood movie is being filmed on the neighbouring Inishmoor Island (in 1934 a documentary film called ‘Man of Aran’ was actually filmed there). Billy dreams of escaping the boredom and poverty of his life (his main hobby is staring at cows). He secretly gets a boat to Inishmoor for the filming and disappears – apparently for a screen test in Hollywood.
This play is simultaneously hilarious, unsettling and tragic. Living with his ‘aunts’ the misery of Billy’s life is heart-breaking. However the monstrous manner in which he is treated by his fellow islanders (his name is not Billy to the islanders – he is ‘Cripple’ Billy) is incredibly funny in its cruelty and indifference. ‘Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place after all’ is an amusing running gag about the inferiority complex suffered by newly, independent Ireland. The manner in which the characters speak to each other seems like ‘stage Oirish’ at the beginning. I initially wondered if the tone was mocking the stupid Irish (Martin McDonagh grew up in Camberwell in London of Irish parents). But it soon becomes apparent that xenophobia is not at play here, and the surreal world in which these characters exist, is reflected by the speech patterns.
The cast is strong – in particular Catherine Walsh and Norma Sheahan as the busybody shopkeepers who have raised Billy. Ruairi Heading gives a moving performance as Billy. Phelim Drew as the village gossip Johnnypatteenmike is hilarious – constantly thwarted in his efforts to murder his ninety year old alcoholic mother (Rosaleen Linehan).
A thoroughly enjoyable evening made even more memorable by the incident at the intermission. I moved to the front of the house to get a full view of the splendour of the theatre. A gentleman approached me, a beaming smile on his face. He proffered his hand for me to shake. Without thinking I took it.
‘How are you? It has been so long. How have you been?’
‘I am doing great’ I replied, my brain in a blind panic. I had never seen that man in my life. Unless I had and had completely forgotten him. Had I worked with him at some point maybe?
He must have seen my confusion.
‘You’re Paul McDonald aren’t you?’ he asked.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
An appropriate incident to occur during this particular play.
Directed by Andrew Flynn, ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ runs until 9th March in the Gaiety Theatre.