Andrew Flynn | The Lieutenant of Inishmore

Andrew Flynn's production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore opens for a limited run from 27 January 2020 at The Gaiety Theatre. He directed the play's first-ever Irish production back in 2006.

Here we take a look back at that production and Andrew's long relationship with Martin McDonagh

The Pillowman

Are we ready for the Lieutenant?

 
 

Audiences abroad have loved Martin McDonagh's send-up of terrorism in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, but how will Ireland react to its violent content and 'jokes' about the IRA, asks Patrick Lonergan

Is Ireland ready for its first home-grown production of Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore? The most controversial play by Ireland's most provocative dramatist, The Lieutenant has been produced throughout the world since its 2001 premiere, picking up awards everywhere it has played. Yet it has never been staged by an Irish company, and has been seen here only once before, in a dreadful touring production from the UK at the 2003 Dublin Theatre Festival.

The decision by Galway's Town Hall Theatre to take the play on a national tour is thus an exciting development, which looks set to re-ignite debates in Ireland about McDonagh.

So why have we had to wait so long for an Irish Lieutenant? One answer might be that the play's treatment of republicanism has been considered too provocative for audiences here. McDonagh's "hero" is Mad Padraic, a brutal terrorist who rushes home to Inishmore when he hears that his beloved pet cat is unwell. It's not subtle, but McDonagh's play is a merciless - and surprisingly intelligent - send-up of the relationship between republican rhetoric and terrorist violence.

Throughout the action, we hear familiar phrases about "valid targets," and we listen to well-known rebel songs and republican mythology. Placing these sanitised treatments of republicanism against the reality of terrorist violence, The Lieutenant offers a challenging perspective on recent Irish history.

This might explain why McDonagh originally had such trouble getting the play staged. The theatres that championed his early work (Druid, the Royal Court, and the Royal National Theatre) were offered The Lieutenant after the success of The Leenane Trilogy in 1997 - and all three turned it down. McDonagh was furious, claiming that he was being censored by "gutless" producers who thought his play might destabilise the peace process. The theatres rejected this suggestion, but McDonagh stated that he wouldn't allow any of his other plays to be premiered unless The Lieutenant appeared first.

This finally happened in 2001, when the Royal Shakespeare Company produced it in Stratford. That theatre was clearly excited by the play, but also seemed nervous. Rumours circulated that animal rights groups were planning protests against the play's inclusion of a live cat, and the RSC took the unusual step of writing to all ticket-holders to assure them that "no cats or people are hurt" in the show; children were told to stay away, and elderly, visually impaired, and even pregnant patrons were warned about the play's violent content.

Despite this advance publicity, The Lieutenant was well received when it eventually opened - but there was no indication at that time that it would become such a huge international success.

Its fortunes changed considerably after the events of September 11th, 2001, however. Productions of The Lieutenant were soon appearing everywhere, particularly in countries affected by the emerging "war against terror," where audiences responded enthusiastically to McDonagh's willingness to face terrorism by ridiculing it. A Turkish production appeared only weeks after a series of devastating bombings in Istanbul in 2003, for example, while a Sydney production in the same year was presented as an attack on the Australian government's "pre-emptive assertion of power" in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the play being used to suggest that political violence - whether by terrorists or governments - is always self-perpetuating and futile.

Such issues are not irrelevant to audiences here, but the play's Irish elements - which haven't received much attention abroad - are likely to raise some difficult questions when The Lieutenant opens in Galway this week. How, for example, should we respond to McDonagh's "jokes" about the IRA, many of which refer to actual victims of republican violence? Is McDonagh reminding us that, despite his play's outrageous plot, innocent people were killed during the Troubles? Or is he instead exploiting those people's deaths for a cheap laugh? As ever with McDonagh, audiences will be divided in their responses to such questions: we can expect post-show discussions at the Town Hall to be as lively as the play itself.

Nevertheless, director Andrew Flynn is relishing the chance to bring the play to the audience for which it was actually written.

"It will probably be controversial, and may cause offence to some," he acknowledges. "But that's true of many great plays."

Flynn believes passionately that Irish audiences will find the play surprising as well as provocative: "McDonagh brings things into the theatre that we only ever see in the cinema," he states. "That makes The Lieutenant a huge technical challenge, but also makes it very exciting."

And despite the play's controversial qualities, Flynn isn't worried about its reception.

"Things have moved on a lot in Ireland since The Lieutenant was first written," he states. "I think we're finally ready for this play." We'll soon discover whether Flynn is right - but, as audiences in Galway, Cork, and Derry will soon find out, one thing is certain: Martin McDonagh hasn't gone away, you know.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore opened at the Town Hall Theatre Galway before traveling to the Cork Opera House and the Millennium Forum Derry.