Interview: Martin McDonagh on the Lieutenant of Inishmore
6th April 2001
He’s back, and only half as arrogant
Five years after his explosive playwriting debut, Martin McDonagh’s notorious egotism has softened, discovers Dominic Cavendish. First published in the Daily Telegraph, 06 Apr 2001
Since his dazzling theatrical debut five years ago at the age of 25 with The Beauty Queen of Leenane – a play that won heaps of accolades, including four Tony awards – Martin McDonagh has been all round the world. He has seen his work performed in Japan, Iceland and America and acquired the taste for a jet-set life. He thinks that he may go and hang out in Barcelona later this year.
Yet his fifth play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore (which previews at the RSC’s The Other Place in Stratford from next Wednesday), is set in the same small corner of the globe as all his previously staged works: the remote, rural west of Ireland.
For some, this will be a good reason to raise a glass to the young fella. The Emerald Isle of McDonagh’s imagining is an enticing destination. Laughter is guaranteed, as is a twisty plot and much beguiling, sing-song chatter. The natives are restless, simple and often cruel; yet their small-mindedness has a charming, childish directness to it that is almost enviable.
Others will be less enthusiastic. To some critics, McDonagh went from being new writing’s golden boy to yesterday’s news faster than you can say “It’s a long way to Tipperary.” Their respect for his yarn-spinning abilities, and his precocious technical skills, is outweighed by a view of his writing as cold and calculated, with too much pastiche and not enough passion.
Though his father is from Connemara, and his mother from Sligo, McDonagh was raised on a council estate in the Elephant and Castle, south London. At first, there was a rush to admire the imaginative leap he had made, combined with a gasp of amazement that he had left school at 16 to go on the dole and become a writer. However, his biographical details were soon commandeered to reinforce suggestions that, in emotional as well as geographical terms, he was miles away from his subject matter.
Dressed in a smart suit, his white shirt gleaming, his black shoes perfectly polished, McDonagh at 30 cuts a distinguished figure. The impression is complemented by his crop of prematurely grey hair and towering height. As relaxed as a millionaire leaning over the rails of his St Tropez yacht, he ponders what he views as “a backlash.”
“The first reviews of The Beauty Queen, when I hadn’t done any interviews, took the play for what it was. It’s only when I started doing them, and people heard my south London accent, that the work started to be weighed against my background. The truth is that I’ve always felt half-Irish, half-English. The suggestion seems to be that I’m not allowed to write about where my parents are from. I hate that idea of authenticity, that you must be tied down only to what you know at first-hand.”
His imagined arrogance was, he believes, a factor in the mixed reactions to the successors to Beauty Queen, which were A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West. “If you think you’re good, then it’s a lie to pretend that you’re not,” he told journalists. He compared himself to Muhammad Ali and Van Gogh and claimed that he would produce “seven brilliant plays and at least 20 good films.” This was after the Evening Standard Awards when, in a state of reckless inebriation, he swore at Sean Connery, who had told him to pipe down.
“People are very unforgiving. At the time, it was fun,” he recalls. “That was what I thought a 25-year-old playwright should do. I used to think you had to be arrogant to gear yourself up to do good things. Now I don’t.” And it’s true that, in person, he’s charming rather than cocksure. He’s even humble about his first foray into film – a Paramount commission from producer Scott Rudin (Clueless, The First Wives Club) that fizzled out – “What I wrote was rubbish.”
In one respect, The Lieutenant of Inishmore – which follows The Cripple of Inishmaan as the second in a proposed Aran Island trilogy – marks a departure. It has a modern, political dimension, wildly satirising the inhumanity and idiocies of terrorists.
The “Lieutenant” is one of many unstable members of the INLA: a man who cares more about his cat than the lives of others. Exploding moggies, as well as sundry acts of torture and braining, are among the logistically tricky scenes that McDonagh has devised.
“This is about as far as I’m ever going to push the violence on stage,” he says, beaming. Those who berate him for heartlessness may have a field day, but, as with the previous plays, he denies charges of shallowness. “I always like a dark story that’s seemingly heartless, but where there is a heart, tiny and camouflaged as it might be. I care about the characters an awful lot.”
Lieutenant grew out of a desire to examine “the ambivalence towards terrorism that a lot of people in the South have. There is anti-terrorist talk and yet, all the while, a support for what the terrorists are fighting for. I was brought up on the Republican Nationalist side, so I wanted to examine my own viewpoints too. I think it’s a strong pacifist play, with a vicious rage to it. I’m not sure how it will be received either here or over there.”
He was so protective of the play, which he ranks as a personal favourite, that he vowed not to work in England again until it was staged – hence the delay between the play’s writing, four years ago, and his reappearance. He is furious with the National and the Royal Court for turning it down and says he won’t contemplate working with either again.
You could say that he’s leaving Ireland with a bang. The next plays won’t stray anywhere near the land of the leprechauns. There are several already completed: one about a writer in a totalitarian Eastern European state; a gangster piece set on Coney Island; and, finally, a play set in London in the early Sixties.
“Writing in an Irish idiom freed me up as a writer. Until then, my dialogue was a poor imitation of Pinter and Mamet. I used to try and write stories set in London, but it was just too close to home. Now I’ve shaken off those influences, I can move back.”
His revised ambition today is “to write between 30 and 40 plays and to write and direct one really good film”. It’s still a tall order. “I dunno,” he says, displaying his new-found, winning modesty, “I think I’ve made an OK start.”