It’s been a while since Martin McDonagh had a new play on in London. More recently, his A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE opened on Broadway in 2010 – where it was promptly disemboweled by Irish Times theater critic Fintan O’Toole.
Well McDonagh is at it again – this time at The Royal Court. THE HANGMEN opens in September.
I have referenced Irish Times theater critic Fintan O’Toole’s legendary slam of Martin McDonagh’s 2010 Broadway play A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE (which O’Toole called a “disaster”) enough times, I finally had to go and subscribe to the IT so that I could get access to the review in the digital archives.
Here it is for you.
Arch McDonagh takes a wrong turn to dead-end Americana
March 20, 2010
CULTURE SHOCK: For this awful, knowing parody in the Tarantino genre, McDonagh should return to his superior, terrible beauties.
EVEN FOR admirers of Martin McDonagh (present company included), it is almost a relief that, before reaching 40 this month, he has finally hatched a turkey. Ever since the opening night of The Beauty Queen of Leenane in Galway in February 1996, the only thing that has slowed the progress of the Irish theatre’s wunderkind has been the deep drift of bouquets and laurels he has had to wade through. Some of us had begun to wonder whether the legal firm of Lucifer Beelzebub and Mephistopheles didn’t have a contract on file signed in suspiciously garish red ink. This, after all, is a writer who put together a little film so he could learn how to direct ( Six Shooter) and won an Oscar for it.
Given the flamboyance of McDonagh’s career, it is fitting that his new play on Broadway, A Behanding in Spokane, is a prince among turkeys – golden, organic and butter-basted. And the totality of the play’s failure may, in the long run, make it one of the most useful things he has done. Most major playwrights – indeed most serious artists – learn more from their disasters than from their triumphs. In that sense, A Behandingshould be a defining experience for McDonagh. It clarifies – for the viewer and perhaps for himself – the nature of his mercurial, mysterious talent by defining the ground over which it does not travel.
Understanding that the play is, indeed, very bad is not quite as straightforward as it should be. When people are paying $130 (€95) a ticket to get into the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre and greeting the curtain call with standing ovations, it is easy to fall for defensive delusions. But the poverty of the play is masked by Christopher Walken’s mesmerising performance in the central role of Carmichael, who lost a hand in his youth and has spent the rest of his life searching for it. As masks go, Walken would grace the most lavish Venetian carnival. He would be magnetic if he stood on stage reading the assembly instructions for an Ikea flat-pack sofa, and a lot of people would pay $130 to witness the act.
Walken is indeed magnificent here, and he clearly relishes McDonagh’s language and humour. McDonagh’s work always walks a line between the grotesque and the playful, between horror and hilarity. And nobody knows that line as well as Walken does. Every Walken take is a double take. He’s one of the very few actors who can have his tongue in his cheek at the same time as his teeth are in your flesh. He is a refugee from both Samuel Beckett (he has himself got up like the ghostly protagonist of Ohio Impromptu) and a schlock thriller. He is genuinely terrifying and not at all serious. The weird smile that plays around his lips is simultaneously an expression of psychosis and of knowing bonhomie. While he’s on stage (for about half the 90 minutes of the show), you can almost believe that there’s a play going on here.
The downside is that when Walken walks off stage (or rather climbs out the window of the dingy motel room in which all the action unfolds), there’s an almost palpable shock of realisation that the rest is not merciful silence but lame chatter. McDonagh has, among other things, always been a brilliant parodist – of John B Keane and Tom Murphy, of Synge and Beckett, of Pinter and the Brothers Grimm. But here he’s parodying himself: A Behandingfeels like nothing so much as an over-extended skit on McDonagh’s favourite tics – the meta-theatrical game-playing, the grand guignol of stray body parts (in this case a collection of severed hands), the repetitions and reversals of the dialogue, the self-conscious absurdities of plot. A parody of a parody may be the ultimate in post-modern theatre but it also proves in practice how blind an alley all this knowingness can become.
The problem becomes a simple one: A Behanding isn’t funny. The opening five minutes are grimly hilarious, and there are a few good jokes along the way.
But the action is far too slack for a successful farce. (Even the mechanics are extraordinarily lazy: the little grifters that Carmichael ties to the heating pipes are within reach of a phone but it doesn’t occur to them to call the cops.) And it’s far too self-satisfied to be outrageous. Sam Rockwell, who plays the motel receptionist, is a fine actor, but when he’s left to carry the burden of comic invention, it turns out to be an empty basket.
The question of taste also arises here. McDonagh has long been a master of bad taste (not at all the same thing as having no taste at all). But it’s been grounded in character – he gets away with pushing boundaries because he convinces you that this is what the character might actually say. But here there is no characterisation worth talking about. When Carmichael talks repeatedly of “niggers” and “fags”, and one of his captives, the ditzy Marilyn (Zoe Kazan) criticises his racism and homophobia, there’s a sense that McDonagh is not so much having his cake and eating it as licking the icing and then spitting it out. He wants the shock value but not the consequences.
A Behanding is like the can of gasoline that Carmichael places in the room with a lit candle on top – it never ignites. For all the elements of contrived controversy, it is actually rather tame. And this surely says something about McDonagh’s imagination. All games, however fancy, have to be played on solid ground. McDonagh’s brilliant stagecraft, his linguistic cleverness and his gifts as a fabulist have always had a ground beneath them. His versions of the West of Ireland, of the Northern Ireland conflict or of the dark world of childhood imagination may have large elements of parody but they are parodies of something real. That element of reality, however playfully refracted, anchors his humour and invention in genuine human emotions.
A Behanding is anchored only in what has always been the worst of McDonagh’s many sources of influence: Quentin Tarantino. It attempts the same kind of self-referential, movie-saturated, rather arch Americana.
McDonagh turns out to be no good at it. For me, at least, that is a cause for celebration. He is much, much better than Tarantino will ever be. When he remembers that, he may look back on the disaster of A Behanding as the mudslide that blocked a road he should not go down.
If it shows him where he shouldn’t go, it may also point him in the right direction – towards a deeper engagement with theterrible humour of humanity.
It doesn’t take all that much to get on Irish Times theatre critic Fintan O’Toole’s shit list. But to rise to the remote and windy top of that list is no small achievement. For O’Toole has been reviewing Irish theatre at home and abroad for decades. And many, many shows meet with – well, start reading him and you’ll see.
The list of pans and slams is long, so you’d think that singling out an all time worst from the list of candidates would be challenging for O’Toole. Apparently not. While some Irish fans may feel slighted that this elite honor goes out of country, no doubt most will be delighted to hear an American is wearing the laurels.
Despite the odds, John Patrick Shanley has brought home gold with his “Irish play” OUTSIDE MULLINGAR, now on at Seattle Rep. In O’Toole’s annual recap of Irish cultural highs and lows for 2014, he named Shanley’s play as including “perhaps the worst single line I’ve heard in the theater.” We won’t spoil the drama. You’ll have to go and find out which line it was. Though it won’t initially be easy to pick out just one.
It’s amazing what a Tony nomination and a famous playwright’s name can do. This nonsensical story, projected onto a culture that is apparently as foreign to Shanley as Timbuktu, is now making the rounds of mediocre American regional theater. And nothing draws an unthinking stateside smile faster than a bad Irish accent on stage. No matter how far from reality the representation of Ireland may be, as long as someone drinks a beer, makes a joke about the rain, and says “shite”, all is well. When this sort of slapstick gets really, really bad it’s pure greenface.
Culture Shock: ‘Outside Mullingar’, and beyond the edge of awfulness
All the hokum that had been happily discarded became, in Martin McDonagh’s hands, a workable proposition again. It didn’t occur to me that an intelligent American dramatist such as John Patrick Shanley might look at those plays and miss all the layers of mockery and irony and manipulation.
Feb 22, 2014
When plays are bad, their badness is usually easy to explain. Occasionally, though, there is a play whose woefulness demands a whole new theory. John Patrick Shanley’s faux-Irish drama Outside Mullingar , currently on Broadway, is mystifyingly awful. The obvious explanation, that Shanley can’t write, doesn’t get us very far. He won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Doubt , and an Oscar for Moonstruck . Neither is especially to my taste, but they are at worst highly competent and professional. They don’t prepare you for the moments in Outside Mullingar when you find yourself shaking your head in abject, surrendered, uncomprehending disbelief.
After much reflection, my theory about Outside Mullingar is what we might call the McDonagh Effect. Martin McDonagh took the ramshackle old Irish naturalistic play, with its odd mix of kitchen comedy and 19th-century melodrama, and made it look both easy and viable. All the old hokum that had been happily discarded became, in his hands, a workable proposition again. If you were Irish, of course, it was also obvious that his was a postmodern version of Irish hokum, utterly self-aware, drenched in irony, deliberately anachronistic and brilliantly deployed to manipulate an audience’s expectations.
It didn’t occur to me, at least, that an intelligent American dramatist might look at those McDonagh plays and miss all the layers of mockery and irony and manipulation. That it would be possible to think, Great, the Abbey play of the 1940s is up for grabs again – and to think this in all innocence, with no hint of malicious intent. The only way I can explain Outside Mullingar is to assume that poor Shanley was misled in this way. Even this doesn’t explain why nobody, especially the Irish people involved in the production, had a quiet word to put him right.
Outside Mullingar is set, well, outside Mullingar. The time is given in the programme as “recently”: we know this because there are references to Irish boxers winning medals at the Olympics. As the old farmer Tony Reilly (played by Peter Maloney) puts it, in a line that is all too typical, “Sure, we’re good with our fists, no surprise there.” But theatrically, it is set in a different time and place: the Abbey, some time between 1930 and 1959.
If you were to do a random cut-up of the rural social comedies that were the staple diet of that period, you would more than likely end up with most of the following elements: a funeral, cups of tea, a dispute about land, a dying parent, a will, a returned Yank, an ageing virgin son and the headstrong woman he is secretly in love with but has never got around to informing of his feelings. If you shuffled those cards a few times, you’d come up with the bones of Outside Mullingar . To complete the job, you’d have to have mistaken McDonagh’s dark surrealism for Oirish quirkiness and added enough of that to tip the whole thing from mere dullness into embarrassment.
In Outside Mullingar , we begin in Tony’s kitchen after the funeral of his nearest neighbour. We quickly establish three things. Tony is thinking of cutting his son, Anthony (played by Brían F O’Byrne), out of his will and leaving the farm to a Yankee nephew. The Reillys have been in dispute with the neighbour about a right of way. (The term “land-grabbing” is, I’m afraid, inevitable.) And the disputed land has passed to the neighbour’s daughter, the fiery Rosemary Muldoon (played by Debra Messing – Grace from Will & Grace ).
I would normally be careful about revealing how it all works out, but in this case it will hardly surprise readers that the resolution will involve two elements: (a) a deathbed scene of more than usually revolting sentimentality in which Tony makes it all right with Anthony; and (b) Anthony and Rosemary finally getting around to wearing the face off each other.
All of this would be weird in itself, especially as the pastiche of midcentury Irish drama is always slightly off-kilter. Shanley’s ear for Irish speech – he has cousins outside Mullingar – is not well enough tuned to avoid having people “go to church” or “pass on”. Messing’s Rosemary tries so hard at an Irish accent that her voice ends up drowning in the Atlantic. It doesn’t help that her mother is played by Dearbhla Molloy, whose precise characterisation makes you wonder where her daughter came from.
But what makes the whole thing almost unfathomably bad is that Shanley has some vague sense that McDonagh’s plays do something more. Hence we have rain falling outside the cottage window as in the Druid production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane and the casting of O’Byrne from that same production. Rosemary has elements of Slippy Helen from The Cripple of Inishmaan , and her resentment of Anthony goes back to a McDonaghesque childish slight. Worst of all, Anthony’s big revelation is an unintended parody of the way McDonagh inserts oddities and nonsequiturs. He explains that he has stayed away from Rosemary all these years because “I think I’m a bee”. This is not a joke or a metaphor: he thinks he’s a bee. I tried to convince myself that I was an ice-cube so I could melt into the ground in embarrassment.
Some playwrights are one hit wonders. Others get several good ones. But very few can keep the show going for a lifetime of stellar output. Edward Albee, anyone?
While far from a grand old man of the theatre in age, Conor McPherson is stayin’ alive. He’s still writing plays. And good ones.
McPherson is an interesting writer because he’s managed to move beyond the “raging out of control young drunk males on a tear in Dublin” narrative that is the typical entry level job for Irish male playwrights. True, he’s now often dealing with the “resigned, middle-aged drunk but more thoughtful men in Dublin” category. But McPherson is a force to be reckoned with and has a lot to say. He is far from done. For any long time McPherson watchers, his latest play is particularly interesting because it reveals a surprising and unexpected truth: Conor McPherson, the man, is happy.
In performance, McPherson’s plays become showcases for great Irish actors. So much of what he is writing about comes out in between the seams and during quiet moments as characters sit in a chair or fiddle with a lamp or consider each other. These are not action hero dramas. They are closeup portraits that rely on the fabric of strong ensemble acting.
Over the years McPherson has used the great Ciarán Hinds a few times. Hinds was the devil in McPherson’s THE SEAFARER on Broadway. And in the Donmar Warehouse’s premiere of THE NIGHT ALIVE, Hinds was Tommy.
Here’s a brief snippet of Hinds in character (worth waiting out the lifestyles of the rich and famous ad that precedes it). With a text and actor like this, there’s more grain and substance in a single minute of performance than an hour from most plays.
Catch THE NIGHT ALIVE at Third Rail starting February 20.
Remember that storm we warned you about? The one off the west coast of Ireland? Well here it comes.
DruidShakespeare: The History Plays, the epic combination of Shakespeare’s four Henry plays adapted by Mark O’Rowe and produced by Ireland’s one and only Druid Theatre Company, is heading toward the light. It was announced today that the show will make landfall in North America at this year’s Lincoln Center Festival on July 7-19. It will premiere first in Galway in May.
Directed by Garry Hynes, the production includes a blinding array of Irish acting talent including Clare Barrett, Derbhle Crotty, Gavin Drea, Bosco Hogan, Garrett Lombard, Karen McCartney, Charlotte McCurry, Aaron Monaghan, Marie Mullen, Rory Nolan, Aisling O’Sullivan, John Olohan, and Marty Rea.
Wow. That would be a dream team.
There’s no way you can miss this.
This will be Druid’s fourth visit to the festival after DruidSynge in 2006, The Silver Tassie in 2011 and DruidMurphy in 2012.
If you’ve been following along, you’ll recall that Irish Times theatre and social critic Fintan O’Toole labeled John Patrick Shanley’s “Irish play” OUTSIDE MULLINGAR “mystifyingly awful” and “unfathomably bad” last February. Not inconsequential words from one of the most important living English language critics and the man with the definitive word on Irish culture.
Now O’Toole sees a lot of plays (many, as you may know, not to his liking), and he kind of had to hedge himself with that “perhaps” – because there are so many competitors vying for the designation and he can’t keep track of them all (maybe there’s an app for that). But still. Making it to the top of such a hallowed heap is no ordinary achievement. For any playwright.
American plays that are “set in Ireland” but actually have no understanding of the place is a kind of evergreen cottage industry in the US and no doubt keeps the interns at Christopher Guest’s office busy filing story ideas for future films.
Meanwhile, Shanley’s play is starting to pump through the mass-produced theatre industrial complex pipeline to many regional theatres that should know better. For example, lo and behold, to our north Seattle Rep has elected to do OUTSIDE MULLINGAR in April.
Last summer’s production of THE MIKADO with an all white cast by Seattle’s Gilbert & Sullivan Society drew hundreds of Asian American protesters onto the streets decrying stereotypes and cultural appropriation in the American theatre. Why wouldn’t Irish Americans similarly rally (or, in their more familiar format, riot) against a work that reduces the Irish to a series of greenface types? Not only is the Ireland of Shanley’s play a simple fantasy world that does not exist – it’s a bad play. A horrible play. A play so preposterously bad – that it almost becomes good in a way.
And the truly weird thing here is that actually existing Irish theatre (plays about Ireland by Irish writers) is some of the very best there is. How do you start with one of the mightiest theatre traditions the world has ever known, a stream of writers stretching back hundreds of years who have redefined live performance, and create a play so bad that it should be vetoed even at the junior high level (not to mention Broadway)?
Shanley can take solace knowing that, if ever done in Ireland, OUTSIDE MULLINGAR would go down in memory as one of the funniest “Irish” plays ever seen on stage.
Michael Longley’s beautifully fragile evocation of life, death, nature and memory in The Stairwell. Bryan Cranston’s utterly gripping Lyndon Baines Johnson in Richard Schenkkan’s All the Way. Colm Tóibín’s intricate, moment-by-moment plotting of grief in Nora Webster. The wonderfully loopy Leonora Carrington exhibition at Imma.
Catching up with and being caught up in Eimear McBride’s ferocious and fearless A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. The unconfined joy of The Gloaming. Mikel Murfi’s deeply moving performance in Ballyturk and Ciaran Hinds’s in The Night Alive. Lorrie Moore’s impeccable and inimitable stories in Bark. The rapturous linguistic landscape of Sebastian Barry’s The Temporary Gentleman. Finally getting to see some kabuki in Tokyo.
And the year’s biggest disappointments?
The Government’s malign neglect of the arts and culture: not a red cent extra in the budget; no action on the sale of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre; the John McNulty and Imma-board farce; allowing the National Library of Ireland and National Museum of Ireland to approach collapse. And perhaps the worst single line I’ve heard in the theatre: “I think I’m a bee,” in John Patrick Shanley’s faux-Irish drama Outside Mullingar, on Broadway.
What caught you by surprise?
Lisa Dwan’s performance of three short Samuel Beckett plays – Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby was startling in its power, originality and virtuosity. There’s been nothing quite like it before. Also in Beckettland, Adrian Dunbar’s magical-mystery-tour production of Catastrophe at Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival.
And what will you be glad to see or hear the last of?
Ministerial blather about how much we value culture. Maybe “we” do, but you certainly don’t.
Who or what was 2014’s unsung hero?
Not quite unsung, but unplayed: the great Tony McMahon’s farewell to music leaves a silence in the air.
What’s your top tip for 2015?
The Druid/Mark O’Rowe version of Shakespeare’s Henry plays should be a dangerous walk on a high-wire strung between “these islands”.
Druid, Ireland’s world-touring theatre from Galway famous for originating monumental works, knows how to keep its powder dry.
Shows come only when they’re ready – never before. If there is no show that is ready for the audience, if there is no play that rises above the ordinary – then there is no show. Imagine that.
At Druid, in between creating lifetime high experiences that are burned into memory forever, entire years may pass with not much happening at all. Like a battering North Atlantic storm blowing the moss off rocks around Galway Bay, Druid launches full force when it has something. But then not long after it could be quiet and calm for days, weeks or months. The good news: that calm never lasts.
Rest assured that even when the door at Druid Lane is closed and all seems to be still, somewhere in there a plan is afoot. A scheme is taking shape. A dream is alive. An impossibly ambitious project is being talked about as if it’s actually going to happen. Garry Hynes and her crew are always ready to go as big as needed to hit the target. That’s what they do. Most recently, the 2012 production of DruidMurphy, which included three plays by the visionary (and mostly unknown outside of Ireland) Tom Murphy, created the definitive theatre experience about that uniquely Irish horror story through the years – of leaving. And of course the cycle’s relevance was that it came at a historical moment when flights from Dublin to somewhere/anywhere were once again filling fast.
Meanwhile, North Atlantic radar installations are beginning to track the gathering approach of yet another big one off the west coast of Ireland. Our models show it destined to make landfall sometime this spring/summer. Sure, it’s a long way off, but it’s sufficiently large that you need to know about it now. Residents are being warned to lay in a supply of sand bags and make sure they have plenty of candles, food and drink on hand. A serious battering could be in the works.
In 2015, get ready to duct tape your woolen socks on to try to keep them from being knocked off. Because Druid is pairing up with star writer Mark O’Rowe to bring you all four Shakespeare Henry plays (Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V) in a new version. Generally the world needs more Shakespeare like it needs another folk singer with a hole in the head (or however the song goes). But when done WELL, when done BRILLIANTLY – that’s the kind of Shakespeare we can never get enough of.
In a nutshell, if you could be anywhere this year, this is one to catch. It’s Fintan O’Toole’s top tip for the year.
“This is a great story of families and wars and the making of nations,” said Garry Hynes, “the question we are asking is how, in the context of the historical relationship between Ireland and England, do we as Irish artists produce these plays today?”
So plan ahead and make the pilgrimage to Galway for the world premiere of this epic undertaking, which will then go to New York.
Never heard of Druid? Cruise the archive of past productions to see what you’ve missed.
FAR AND AWAY alert. The kind of cliched, greenface oirishry (especially when conceived by an American) that Irish playwrights skewer and mount on pikes. As if the 20th century never happened at all. A lot more fun if imagined as the front-facing story in a NOISES OFF-style backstage satire.
If you’re an Irish theatre fan, you may be familiar with the fierce and fabulous 52 week podcast experiment by Ireland’s Rise Productions three years ago. All of a sudden, out of nowhere starting in November of 2011 and continuing every Thursday for 52 weeks in a row, Artistic Director Aonghus Óg McAnally started airing unforgettable conversations with Irish theatre makers of note.
The series (you can also get it in iTunes) has since become legendary, and it’s a great example of how an ambitious actor can create opportunities out of thin air. After being a little under utilized on stage in recent years, McAnally decided to do the podcast and generate some interest. And not long after he suddenly found himself on the Abbey stage in the world premiere of THE HOUSE by Tom Murphy. Coincidence? Probably not. At any rate, if you want to hear world class drama, piss-taking and sheer craic as good as it gets, tune in.
What remains from the year is an archive of fascinating talks with a (partial) who’s who of Irish theatre. I just listened to almost all of them on a 2,500 mile holiday road trip.
But if there is just one you need to listen to, it is the talk with actor and man from Cavan Aaron Monaghan. After seeing the young, blazing talent of Irish theatre live on stage in Abbey and Druid shows, there is no way I could have gained a higher appreciation for his art. But what comes through in this talk is the utterly authentic power of who he is as a person. The conversation is massively inspirational. In this mere hour of talk with the surprisingly gentle man, everything about what makes great art and what it means to people comes through.
Give yourself a late holiday gift and listen in. You’ll enjoy it as much as any play.
And then go see Monaghan on stage as soon as you can.