- The Lieutenant of Inishmore
Combining the Irish tradition of macabre humor with the shocking brutality of contemporary film, Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore is a genre-bender that defies easy categorization. Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre's (PICT) production of Lieutenant testified to the play's oxymoronic nature as a "terrorism comedy." It demonstrated that the play can provoke in its audience laughter as well as an Artaudian aversion to the graphic violence it depicts. The close quarters of PICT's theatre heightened this aversion, but also increased the complexity of the play's demand for special effects.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore is in many ways a play of defiance. As social commentary, it is antiviolence, denouncing terrorism by demonstrating the repulsiveness and futility of its cruelty and destruction. Set in 1993 on the island of Inishmore, County Galway, Lieutenant is the story of a rogue INLA terrorist, Mad Padraic, whom we meet as he is torturing James, a bare-chested and bloody man hanging by his ankles from the ceiling. Padraic is about to slice off one of James's nipples when he is interrupted by a phone call from his dad, who reports that Padraic's cat, Wee Thomas, is ill. Distraught by this news, Padraic returns home, followed by members of the INLA who are plotting to execute him. Padraic's homecoming is a series of violent shootings and subsequent dismemberments, all accompanied by a great deal of blood. McDonagh has described this play as a creative attempt to mirror the vicious and explosive behavior of the terrorists it depicts.
The play also is defiant in the demands that it puts upon its audience and its producers. In its combination of humor and horror, it defies audiences to respond in an "appropriate" manner. At first reticent to laugh in the wake of atrocities, an audience laughs and then wonders guiltily if it was okay to do so. The Lieutenant of Inishmore, with graphic violence seemingly better-suited to screen [End Page 294]
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than stage, subverts expectations of both theatre-goers and theatre-makers. Characters torture and murder one another on stage, splattering blood and severing corpses. The physical violence in Lieutenant goes well beyond the classic atrocities depicted in Shakespeare's Lear and Titus and has been deemed by more than one critic as the most gruesome and gory play that one is likely to see. In this sense, Lieutenant defies producers to make this pseudoscreenplay into an effective piece of theatre.
When PICT mounted The Lieutenant of Inishmore in July 2007 it became one of the first professional theatres to take on this daunting play since it closed on Broadway in 2006. In a preshow lecture, PICT's founding artistic director, Andrew Paul, said that, having seen a performance of the original Lieutenant production by the RSC, he was aware immediately of the challenges implied by Stuart Carden's request to direct the play for PICT's 2007 season. Challenges loomed for both artistic staff and audience in the production, promotion, and reception of this "terrorism comedy." Paul also warily anticipated the artistic, budgetary, and logistical challenges of a play that requires so many special effects.
I was impressed with PICT's success in tackling all of Lieutenant's major challenges. PICT operates out of two theatres: the Charity Randall Theatre, a 454-seat traditional proscenium theatre, and the Henry Heymann Theatre, an intimate 153-seat thrust stage. PICT produced Lieutenant in the smaller Heymann, the intimacy of which complicated the demands of special effects. PICT's success in this area of production was due largely to the valiant efforts of special effects artist Steve Tolin. Transcending the confines of a small space and small budget, Tolin created astoundingly realistic and gruesome effects. From the felines both living and dead to the blood-spewing shoot-outs and body parts, these effects...