“I shouldn’t laugh at you Billy… but I will.”
Welcome to the Michael Grandage Company’s production of The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh
Set on the remote island of Inishmaan off the west coast of Ireland, word arrives that a Hollywood film is being made on the neighbouring island of Inishmore. The one person who wants to be in the film more than anybody is young Cripple Billy, if only to break away from the bitter tedium of his daily life.
Martin McDonagh’s comic masterpiece examines an ordinary coming of age in extraordinary circumstances and confirms his position as one of the most original Irish voices to emerge in the second half of the twentieth century. Daniel Radcliffe plays the title role in the first major London revival since its premiere at the National Theatre in 1996.
‘I had seen Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying on Broadway and asked if he wanted to follow up Equus in England with any other play. The answer was yes. Out of our discussion came something I didn’t know about which was his Irish background - his father is Irish - and his interest in the Irish repertoire. I presented The Cripple of Inishmaan to him as a play which hasn’t been seen in London since its premiere and which I would really like to do - the comic but desolate world, the landscape too, that Martin McDonagh creates really appealed to me. I think it’s already seen as a modern classic.’ Michael Grandage
The island of Inishmaan, off the west coast of Ireland, circa 1934.
The isolated islanders are excited to learn of the arrival of a Hollywood film crew on neighbouring Inishmore, there to make a documentary about life on the Aran Islands.
17‑year‑old Billy Claven, desperate to escape the monotony of Inishmaan, is eager to be a part of the film. An orphan and outcast, ‘Cripple Billy’ has been raised by his harsh but well-meaning aunties, Kate and Eileen, ever since his parents drowned in the rough seas off Inishmaan. It seems that nobody ever really wanted Billy, but perhaps Hollywood will?
Maybe that will stop local newsman Johnnypateenmike’s stupid gossiping about him? Or better yet, attract the attention of the beautiful yet terrifying Helen? But first he’s got to find a way to cross the sea to Inishmore… Once there, will he ever come back?
Director Michael - Grandage
Set & Costume Designer - Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer - Paule Constable
Composer & Sound Designer - Alex Baranowski
Casting Director - Anne McNulty
Wig & Hair Designer - Campbell Young
Production Manager - Paul Handley
Company Stage Manager - Katy Bryant
Deputy Stage Manager - Rhiannon Harper
Assistant Stage Manager - Ralph Buchanan
Dialect Coach - Penny Dyer
Props Supervisor - Celia Strainge
Costume Supervisor - Stephanie Arditti
Head of Wardrobe - Tim Gradwell
Head of Wigs & Make-Up - Gemma Flaherty
Deputy Head of Wardrobe - Charlotte Stidwell
Wardrobe Assistant - Rachael McIntyre
Associate Director - Kate Budgen
Associate Set & Costume Designer - Lee Newby & David Woodhead
Associate Lighting Designer - Rob Casey
Associate Sound Designer - Ella Wahlström
Martin is a multi award-winning writer and director.
His plays include: The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, The Lonesome West, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Pillowman and A Behanding in Spokane.
As Writer/Director: In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths and Six Shooter (short film).
Martin McDonagh’s plays flirt with notions of fantasy and reality, conjuring up an Ireland that is both familiar and strange. Patrick Lonergan discovers recurrent themes in the work of one of contemporary theatre’s most distinctive voices.
In March 2013, Tom Cruise visited Ireland to promote his latest film. He did all the things you’d expect a Hollywood star to do: he signed autographs at the movie’s premiere, he was photographed drinking a pint of Guinness, and he charmed the nation when he appeared on The Late Late Show, Ireland’s best known TV chat-show.
Yet his visit was also unusual, in that it included a ceremony organised by the Irish government to present Cruise with a ‘Certificate of Irish Heritage’ – a document that traced his Irish ancestry back to the 12th century. The implication was clear: Cruise might be the world’s most famous American actor, but Ireland was going to stake a claim to at least some of his success. Cruise’s heritage was intended to reflect positively on the entire country – to suggest that, as Martin McDonagh’s characters might put it, Ireland can’t be such a bad place if an actor like Tom Cruise wants to go there.
That event tells us much about Ireland’s need for international attention and approval – and it reminds us also of the relevance of The Cripple of Inishmaan, a play that brilliantly explores the ongoing love/hate relationship between Hollywood and the rest of the world.
For the play’s hero, ‘Cripple’ Billy Claven, Hollywood is both attractive and repellent. Billy knows that Hollywood movies sometimes simplify the world – by embellishing true stories, by using national stereotypes rather than realistic characterisation, or by falsifying reality. Watching The Cripple, we might reach the conclusion that many Irish films are, to quote one of McDonagh’s characters, ‘a rake of shite’, with characters delivering ‘arse-faced’ lines and enacting unrealistic plots. The message here seems obvious: don’t believe everything you see on a cinema screen – or at a theatre.
Yet Hollywood offers Billy something he desperately wants: the chance to escape from Inishmaan, a place so boring that the only way he can entertain himself is by staring at cows. Billy shows a healthy awareness of how filmmakers and other storytellers can manipulate our understanding of the real world – but he also knows that the escapism offered by a compelling story can make a hard life worth living.
Indeed, the themes explored by The Cripple – the lure of Hollywood, the misrepresentation of Ireland and the importance of storytelling – have dominated Martin McDonagh’s career to date.
The Cripple of Inishmaan premiered in London in early 1997, during an extraordinary 18-month period for McDonagh. His theatrical debut The Beauty Queen of Leenane had premiered in Galway in February 1996 and was soon followed by two more Leenane plays, The Lonesome West and A Skull in Connemara. By the summer of 1997, The Leenane Trilogy and The Cripple were all on stage in London, placing McDonagh in the unusual position of having four of his plays in the West End simultaneously – an amazing achievement for a writer who’d been completely unknown two years earlier.
Those four plays were set in a version of the west of Ireland that is both familiar and very strange. McDonagh’s characters lived in a world quite like our own: they watched TV shows like Hill Street Blues and Top of the Pops, supported Manchester United, and were fully aware of events in the world around them, from the civil war in Yugoslavia to the deteriorating reputation of the Catholic Church.
Yet, as the great Irish director Garry Hynes puts it, McDonagh’s characters are also like ‘monstrous children’: crude in manner, thought and language – and often shockingly violent. And their skewed Irish speech is similarly shocking: unnervingly repetitive, jaggedly rhythmic, joltingly funny.
Audiences responded immediately to the inventiveness and originality of McDonagh’s work. Yet as his plays became famous internationally, some commentators began to express concern about McDonagh’s representation of Irishness. They feared that McDonagh might be exploiting and reinforcing negative Irish stereotypes – that he was doing what the filmmaker Robert Flaherty is accused of doing in The Cripple: misrepresenting the country for his own artistic purposes.
As the plot of The Cripple twists and turns, those accusations should seem unfair, however. In a play that challenges our awareness of the differences between truth and fiction, McDonagh places the onus on the audience to interpret what we see. If we allow ourselves to be taken in by stereotypical language and clichéd stories – as many characters in this play do – then perhaps we need to ask an important question: why are we so willing to be fooled by stories that are self-evidently fake?
That’s a question that McDonagh has continued to ask.
Since The Cripple premiered, McDonagh has followed Billy’s path to Hollywood, where he won an Oscar for Six Shooter – a success he followed up with the worldwide hit In Bruges. His latest movie Seven Psychopaths takes up where The Cripple left off, showing that it’s easy to criticise movies for being manipulative – but also emphasising why films matter so much to us. Both Cripple and Psychopaths argue that we need great stories – and they also show why, as a character in McDonagh’s brilliant 2003 play The Pillowman suggests, ‘the only duty of a storyteller is to tell stories'.
In The Cripple, then, we find a play that has much to say about life now. Ireland is certainly not the only country in the world that has a fascination with Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise, and McDonagh invites us to consider why that might be. Yet he also reminds us of why we need stories: because they reveal who we really are, show us what we might someday achieve, and can provide us with solace from the real world. Or, as Robert Flaherty put it, ‘Sometimes you have to lie. One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit'.
Patrick Lonergan is Professor of Drama, Theatre and Performance at National University of Ireland, Galway, and is the author of The Theatre and Films of Martin McDonagh (Methuen, 2012).
This article was originally published in the programme to accompany the Michael Grandage Company’s production of The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Noel Coward Theatre in 2013.
Mid-sixties. A quiet woman, prone to periods of depression brought on by anxiety. She worries about Billy, especially when he’s late home or absent for long, confiding her concerns privately to a stone.
Late sixties. More outspoken than her sister, Kate, and quicker to anger. Though outwardly tougher with Billy, she also cares deeply about him. Where her sister finds solace in a stone, Eileen takes comfort in sweets.
‘Johnnypateenmike', mid‑sixties. The local ‘newsman’ whose reports are essentially gossip and, more often than not, gross fabrication. He lives alone with his drunken Mammy, desperate to be rid of the responsibility of caring for her.
'Cripple Billy', 17‑years-old. ‘One arm and one leg crippled.’ An orphan whose parents drowned at sea, he’s been raised by two local women - his ‘pretend’ aunties. An outcast on the island, Billy longs to leave Inishmaan and explore the world beyond, finding immediate distraction in reading and staring at cows.
16‑years‑old. An enthusiastic boy who seems younger than his years, Bartley has a mischievous sense of fun and a passion for ‘sweeties’ and telescopes.
17‑years‑old. ‘A pretty girl.’ Bartley’s older sister, her fierce temper is often unleashed on him, or anyone who annoys her. Helen’s cutting and frequently cruel words are, in part, a defence against the advances of men - those she hasn’t invited herself. She treats Billy mercilessly, suspecting he might like her.
Early thirties. ‘Handsome, muscular.’ A local fisherman and widower, he’s not as hard as he first appears. Once crossed, though, Babbybobby is unforgiving in taking his revenge.
Early forties. One of the few educated men on Inishmaan, the doctor works hard to combat the gossip and ignorance of the locals, finding his nemesis in Johnnypateenmike and his mistreatment of his mother.
90‑years‑old. She’s been trying to drink herself to death for the past sixty‑five years, ever since a shark ate her husband. Mammy still misses him, especially as her only comfort in old age is her ‘goose’ of a son, Johnny.
Associate Director Kate Budgen provides a week-by-week summary of rehearsals for The Cripple of Inishmaan
We have come to the end of our first week of rehearsals, and what a fantastic week it’s been.
A busy morning on the first day saw the rehearsal room being prepared to welcome around fifty people - with props being delivered, pictures pinned up on walls and lots of coffee brewed. As people started to arrive, it felt a little like the first day of school, but we were helped along by plenty of cake.
After everyone had introduced themselves, we gathered round the model box to hear Michael Grandage and Christopher Oram talk about the design and how they intended to bring the barren yet beautiful world of Inishmaan to the stage at the Noel Coward Theatre. We then listened as Michael and Martin McDonagh discussed the play, the reasons why it was part of this incredible first season for the Michael Grandage Company and what lies ahead over the coming weeks of rehearsal.
The play is often described as a ‘dark comedy’ but something that’s important to both Michael and Martin is to allow the comedy to come out of these characters and their intricate relationships. Over the next five weeks, the job in the rehearsal room is to build a set of characters who are real and multi-layered. To end a thrilling day, we all sat and watched The Man of Aran, the 1934 documentary film made by Robert Flaherty that inspires events in the play.
The first day over, work with the actors began in earnest and the rest of the week saw us working through the play scene-by-scene - reading and chatting about it, then getting it up on its feet to have a play with how it might feel physically.
We were lucky enough to have Martin in the room with us the whole week, to answer questions and offer an insight into the world of the play and the extraordinary characters that inhabit it. Also, for the non-Irish members of the company, clarifying what things like ‘praities’ and ‘poteen’ are - words that make regular appearances in Martin’s text.
With set building well underway, we were lucky enough to have mock-ups of the various scenic elements in the room, meaning scenes could be explored in-situ. There were also a brilliant array of props, including a wooden egg box for Slippy Helen, an old wheelchair for 90-year-old Mammy and more tins of peas than you could possibly know what to do with!
It felt extremely satisfying and exciting to reach the end of the first week and already have a strong sense of the play as a whole. Moving swiftly through the play and finding the broad brushstrokes means that, starting week two, the actors have a basic foundation of each scene, which can then be picked apart to find the detail and texture. With such a gloriously rich and funny text, and a company of brilliant actors, even in these early stages the play is beginning to come to life in a wonderful way.
Week two will see fight calls, dialect sessions, a deep and thorough investigation of the text… And probably more peas!
Week two has been a productive and fruitful week, with everyone settling into the rhythm of rehearsals and getting stuck into a more detailed investigation of character and text.
Our Assistant Stage Manager, Ralph Buchanan, has been surprising us daily with a variety of treats made by his mum, most excitingly homemade ‘Yalla-mallows’ – marshmallow-like sweets that make several appearances in the script. So we have been kept on a steady sugar high all week.
On Wednesday we were visited by Fight Director Brett Yount to consider the various pinches, punches, slaps and fights that occur throughout the play. Even the simplest of actions has to be carefully worked through and choreographed to make sure everyone feels confident and safe. The actors have also had individual voice sessions with Dialect Coach Penny Dyer to ensure everyone is consistent in the rural Irish accent.
One character has a tendency to express herself through the throwing of eggs, usually using her brother as a target, and one of the many highlights of this week has been rehearsing these moments with real eggs. With Stage Management armed with plastic sheeting, special ‘egg rehearsal’ clothing and a variety of cleaning products, we ran the scene.
Watching eggs being smashed over one character’s head, and seeing him attempt to carry on with the rest of the scene with yolk dripping down his face, had us all in fits of laughter. Then the clean-up operation took place swiftly, before the egg hardened and became impossible to remove. We have a few weeks left in rehearsal to keep practicing, to ensure that once we get into the theatre the set and actor can be de-egged in time for the next scene.
Another highlight was the arrival of a beautiful curragh, an Irish fishing boat with a wooden frame that has been used by the inhabitants of the Aran Islands for hundreds of years, and which is still in use today. It’s huge! So huge, in fact, that in order to get it into the rehearsal room the middle section had to be removed. It’s wonderful to have the real thing to work with and to inform the world of Inishmaan that we’re gradually beginning to build.
This week has seen an exciting gear change. We’ve continued to work on scenes in real detail, exploring the characters’ motivations and refining the physical shape of each scene.
Martin’s text is incredibly rhythmic and precise, and the company has really started to find the clarity and momentum of the dialogue and the text is starting to sing. It’s been joyful to watch these extraordinary characters blossom.
Michael has been encouraging the actors to experiment with pushing the cruelty and ruthless nature of the characters’ behaviour, and to release themselves from any desire to want love or sympathy from an audience. This has had a liberating effect. Suddenly characters seem to come into sharper focus, along with the realisation that by doing justice to the tough, often brutal thread that runs through the play, this is what gives the piece its wonderful humanity.
We also welcomed the understudies into the rehearsal room this week, to allow them to begin to observe and learn the show. Four understudies are covering the nine parts, so they have a lot to take on board over the next few weeks to ensure they’re up to speed by the time we hit the theatre.
The play is really coming together. As we continue to work through in detail, moment-by-moment, scenes are also being run without stopping, allowing both director and actors to get a feel of the rhythm as a whole.
Composer and Sound Designer Alex Baranowski arrived mid-week armed with music that he’s composed for the scene transitions. Michael explained how the action would work in relation to it. As we listened, there was a quiet ripple of excitement as the beautiful, sweeping music and atmospheric soundscape enabled us all to get a glimpse of the bigger picture and a taste of what the show will feel like.
Trying certain scenes with an underscoring of the sea injected something new and rather thrilling, as we were all reminded of the continual presence of this element in these characters’ lives.
Just before the company headed off to enjoy a well-deserved bank holiday weekend, Michael brought the whole company together to run the first five scenes. It was really exciting to see how each scene fits together, and how brilliantly the play balances comedy and tragedy.
Michael then spoke about the need at this point for the actors to continue to be rigorous in the accuracy of the text, and that only when there is real confidence in the precision of every moment can they find the freedom to play and let an audience in.
We then headed over to the theatre for an afternoon voice session with Penny, allowing the company time to explore the space and experiment vocally.
There has been a real sense of everyone moving forward together this week. Some big steps have been made ahead of our final week in the rehearsal room.
This week has been intense and exciting. Stage Management are now busy packing up our rehearsal room, ready for the move to the theatre next week. It feels strange to say goodbye to the room we’ve spent the past five weeks in, but thrilling to know that the play is ready to find its feet in the theatre.
Michael was clear from the beginning of the process that by week five we would be running the play with props, costumes, sound and music so that the actors could move into technical rehearsals as prepared as possible. Bit by bit the show is emerging. Tuesday saw our first stagger through and then, gradually, people from the many departments working on the show provided the actors with their first audience - always a nerve-wracking experience, especially with a comedy.
In the theatre there will be a revolve to take us from scene to scene, but in the rehearsal room it has been all hands on deck for the scene changes - moving boats, beds, counters, shelves filled with peas, and clearing up broken eggs as quickly as possible so as not to disrupt the flow of the runthrough.
Each time the play is run we learn more about it, discovering what still needs work, what is landing nicely and what might need to change once we are in the theatre.
The end of the week saw the return of Martin McDonagh, to watch a run and offer his thoughts. Another nerve-wracking moment for the company! It has been five weeks of incredible hard work but everyone is looking forward to the next step – technical rehearsals, hopefully a few dress rehearsals and then our first audience.
Education Associate Dominic Francis provides an insight into the cast and Creative Team’s rehearsal process for The Cripple of Inishmaan
Week One, Day One
Following the traditional ‘Meet and Greet', which marks the beginning of all rehearsals in the Michael Grandage Company’s opening season, Michael addresses the cast and immediate Creative Team. He recalls being at the opening night of the original production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, in 1996 at the National Theatre. He thought then, as he does now, that it’s, ‘A Great play with a capital “g”!’
Next to Michael is the author, Martin McDonagh, who’ll be in rehearsals for the first week and then return at the end of the fifth. Michael explains that Martin hasn’t authorised a professional production of The Cripple of Inishmaan in the UK since the original. ‘That means the majority of our audience won’t have seen this play, so they’ll be coming to it as a new piece. That’s exactly how we’ll approach it – as a new play.’
He reflects that a lot has changed in society over the past seventeen years, including the culture of theatre itself. ‘We’re all living in a short-cut world now. A three-hour show was more common in 1996.’ Michael thinks this is partly an issue of changing styles and attitudes.
Martin doesn’t want to say too much about the play before rehearsals begin. ‘It offers an opportunity to create great characters with real depth,’ observes Michael. ‘The single greatest pleasure of being a director is sitting in a room with actors building a character.’ Between them, Michael and Martin address the issue of the play as comedy, Michael suggesting that humour can get in the way of the ‘underbelly’ of the drama. ‘No one in the play thinks they’re funny or a cartoon character,’ says Martin. ‘They’re real so it needs to be played truthfully.’ Michael adds, ‘We shouldn’t need to do much outside of a line to find the humour – it’s all verbal'.
The issue of the Irish, or more specifically Inishmaan, accent was raised and Martin reveals he wouldn’t particularly know what one sounds like. Ultimately, he says, they all have to sound like they come from the same place, which Michael describes as, ‘Bringing us into one world'. Michael highlights the reality of the current production: ‘We must be aware of performing it in London in 2013. Accents must be authentic but understandable.’ Voice Coach Penny Dyer adds, ‘Historical accuracy can lead to hysterical accuracy'. She has prepared information sheets and accompanying CDs to enable the cast to hear and learn the accent.
Summing up, Michael encourages the actors to, ‘Throw yourselves at it instinctively – do what you do'. And he reminds them that in rehearsals there’s no such thing as a stupid question: ‘Ask anything, assume nothing.’
Week One, Day Four
Today the cast are rehearsing scenes eight to nine, during which the islanders gather to watch the screening of The Man of Aran. They focus particularly upon the ending of Scene Eight, when Billy returns unannounced from America. Reference is made to a recent discussion in a production meeting about the use of blood bags in the fight between Billy and Bobby, the climax of the scene. Eventually these were decided against, the actors – Daniel Radcliffe and Padraic Delaney - compensating with strong physicality and loud vocal reactions instead.
As always Michael monitors all blocking, advising the cast on their positioning on stage. ‘Help yourselves there, you two,’ he might say to a couple of actors, before adding: ‘It would have been better if I’d put you elsewhere.’ Repositioning Dan centre-stage, he comments, ‘This is such a strong position for you to take the audience in, and for them to take you in'. Getting the actors off stage at the end of a scene is less complicated - ‘We can just revolve you out,’ explains Michael.
Author Martin McDonagh is present throughout the first week of rehearsals and Michael takes this opportunity to clarify incidents and events within the play. For example, when Billy considers the life of a film star: ‘This moment in the script, it’s just a reflection on what might have been?’ Or: ‘When you originally wrote that, did you do it to help a director?’
Having finished work on Scene Eight, Stage Management set up for Scene Nine - the last of the play. This is time-consuming as the set for the shop incorporates several large items, including a counter and shelving. On stage it would simply revolve out, revealing another location, but in the rehearsal room it requires all of Stage Management, plus Associate Director Kate Budgen and any willing actors to move it. While this happens, Michael talks one-to-one with Dan, sharing notes on the previous scene.
Work on Scene Nine begins with the actors sitting on chairs facing Michael. Either side of him are Martin, Kate and Deputy Stage Manager Rhiannon Harper. They read through the scene once, following which Michael asks: ‘Anything textually, Martin?’ He suggests cutting the line, ‘A big old hemp sack like one of them there, it was.’ With hindsight he thinks it’s, ‘Too much exposition'.
The scene starts with the Doctor bandaging Billy’s head, following his fight with Bobby. Based on later comments made by Helen - ‘You look a fecking fool in all that get-up, Cripple Billy’ - Michael realises that Billy is covered in a lot of bandages. The issue of the precise time at the start of the scene is raised. It’s agreed that there’s a ‘little distance’ between Bobby’s beating of Billy in Scene Eight and the start of Scene Nine.
Other questions asked of the scene include: How does the Doctor know Jim Finnegan’s daughter is a ‘slut’? Did he simply treat her or has he had a more particular experience? Martin doesn’t think so.
‘Do you want it to be that bleak at the end?’ Dan asks him. He argues for Billy being more hopeful after his kiss with Helen. Martin suggests, however, that this would be eclipsed by the Doctor’s unofficial confirmation of Billy’s TB earlier in the scene.
There’s a discussion about whether Billy overhears Kate and Eileen’s conversation regarding the true story of his parents’ death. The actors ask Martin to clarify events. ‘To the ear it sounds like it’s unresolved,’ observes Michael. ‘My feeling was that there must have been bodies,’ suggests Martin. Earlier in the scene Eileen appears to give Johnny permission to tell Billy the story, or rather a version of it - ‘Why?’ asks the cast. It’s suggested Eileen does so precisely because she can see Johnny is going to embellish the truth.
Next, Martin asks questions of the actors to clarify details. He focuses on Helen’s re-entrance at the end of the scene, following Billy’s suggestion that they go out walking together. ‘Just a question,’ he says, addressing actress Sarah Greene. ‘Why does she come back?’ This is considered for a moment, Michael commenting, ‘I got a whiff during that first reading that something appeals to her vanity’. Martin adds to this: ‘I’m going to throw it out there… She was probably interested earlier.’ This connects with Michael’s earlier thought: ‘He’s probably the only boy on the island who can read for a start.’ He encourages Sarah to explore the idea: ‘It’s ambiguous, that’s what’s nice about it. It gives you something to play with.'
Following this discussion, the actors stand up and start putting the scene ‘on its feet'. Michael encourages all of them to, ‘Remember, the scene itself needs to become the dialogue it is'. He looks at the blocking, wanting to find a way to get Dan out of the chair - where he’s seated being treated by the Doctor – to shake hands with Johnny. ‘There might be a moment much earlier when you can get up, Dan.’
Focusing on Billy’s reaction to Johnny’s story – ‘It was for me they killed themselves?’ – Michael says to Dan: ‘That’s a line you don’t need to do for him. It’s out of your discovery.’
At the end of the scene, Billy starts to fill a sack with tinned peas. As Dan is playing him with only one fully-functioning arm, the difficulty of fastening a sack single-handed becomes apparent. ‘We need to see Billy tying the cord,’ observes Michael, reflecting: ‘There’s a little scene by itself, the story being, “I’m doing something in order to be able to drown myself".'
When Helen returns unexpectedly what should Billy do with the sack? Quickly take it off? Dan asks whether he removes it once Helen has gone, to show he’s made a decision – to live. There’s a brief discussion between Michael and Martin about whether Billy can keep the sack on him, possibly hiding it behind his back. ‘It’s raised a number of issues,’ says Michael. ‘Not least, how many tins of peas do you need to drown yourself?’ He says he’ll break the scene down into sections for the next rehearsal in order to avoid calling actors unnecessarily. ‘We’ll come back to it and work our way through it properly.’
Week Two, Day Two
Scene Six is the focus of today’s rehearsal. Michael works with Sarah Greene and Conor MacNeill, playing brother and sister Helen and Bartley McCormick. They run the scene once, following which Michael comments, ‘I’m absolutely thrilled with where you both are in the second week of rehearsals'. He then asks questions about the characters and their motives.
Michael observes that, on her entrance, Helen needs to find Bartley doing nothing – waiting for Kate and his sweets – to prompt her line, ‘What are you waiting for?’ The actors run the opening exchange again. ‘Good,’ says Michael, then adds: ‘You’re not quite talking to each other, though.’ He encourages them to connect with each other more and returns to first principles: ‘Partly, at the moment, the speed on the lines is at the expense of the thought. The line, the thought and the pace are allied. Remember, it’s the top of the second half, we’ve been away, had a drink, decided we’ll stay and now we have to re-settle and need all the help in the world in these first few minutes.’
Michael helps ground Conor in the moment: ‘The “uber-motive” of this scene for Bartley is waiting for Fripple-Frapples. Right now, “I, Bartley, am engaging in a conversation about eggs".'
The actors run the scene section-by-section with Michael making suggestions. He listens carefully to the dialogue and its delivery. ‘Is it just curiosity that makes you ask that, Bartley – “What did you kick the egg-man in the shins for?” – or do you have a view on it? What’s the attitude?’ Michael continually champions the text: ‘There’s one line I’m not getting’; ‘You’re slightly misrepresenting the text there’; ‘There’s a better inflection for you'. He may focus on a specific word: ‘Pick out “murdered” more.’ (Bartley: ‘But it was you murdered Jack Ellery’s goose and Pat Brennan’s cat for them.’) Michael keeps returning to the unity of thought and speech: ‘There isn’t a Martin McDonagh pause there so you can put the thought on the line.’
His attention to detail covers every element of performance, from speech to movement: ‘What’s the reason for that move?’ He continues to ask the actors about their characters’ motivations, the intention behind a particular line or movement. He warns the actors against ‘illustrating’ moments. Focusing on Bartley sitting on the shop counter, Michael says: ‘That would be the line to jump down on for me, because it actually propels you.’ He considers swapping Helen and her brother. ‘Let’s look at a different version of that where Helen shoves Bartley out of the way and takes that position for herself.’ Watching the scene again, Michael comments: ‘I’ll tell you what I would like, to open up the space a bit.’
He and the actors consider the development of the scene. ‘The waiting at the beginning has been eclipsed by one or two much more interesting pieces of news.’ He explores the progression of Helen and Bartley’s conversation, ensuring they continue to make contact with each other, reflecting on one of Helen’s lines: ‘You’re making sure Bartley hears it, consumes it, cogitates it.’ Of a sudden change of thought, Michael asks, ‘Now where’s that come from?’ He invites the actors to fill in any missing details, those things left unsaid in the play. For example, ‘Does Jim Finnegan’s daughter have a name?’ Sarah and Conor, with much laughter, agree upon Fidelma. In reviewing the scene, Michael returns to the beginning: ‘I think we’ve forgotten the waiting.’
A couple of times during today’s rehearsal the issue of accent and pronunciation is raised. ‘Where it’s problematic,’ reflects Michael, ‘is when one person says a word one way and, in the same scene, someone says it another.’ He reminds the actors that a significant function of his role in rehearsal is to represent the audience: ‘I’m sitting here on behalf of all those people.’ Listening to the scene again, Michael comments: ‘My ear hears two versions of “cat".' (And later ‘voice'.) The more English-sounding pronunciations are favoured as better for this production’s audience.
Michael constantly seeks to clarify the narrative with the actors, particularly which characters knew what when. In this instance, he focuses upon Billy’s letter - ‘How do you know about it?’ he asks Sarah of Helen. ‘Does that mean we the audience are hearing for the first time that the “TB letter” has been shared with the island? That this information has gone global.’
Attention then turns to the moment in the scene where Helen breaks several eggs over Bartley’s head. It needs to be considered within the world of the play – Why does she do it? What motivates her? – but also from a practical point of view, which is why Company Stage Manager Katy Bryant joins the rehearsal. Michael requests a towel for Sarah to clean her hands on after breaking the eggs. He wonders how Stage Management will clear this away during the performance and Katy suggests a removable piece of flooring.
‘The egg should be a surprise to us too,’ says Michael, while highlighting the need for some context: ‘We need a little more here about Helen’s history with eggs - it helps us.’ He proposes running the scene with a real egg and encourages Sarah and Conor to, ‘See what happens if you just keep going, rather than stopping to analyse it’. Afterwards Michael acknowledges, ‘That’s a hard transition that one’. He advises Sarah to take a moment following the egg breaking: ‘In the chaos and hilarity of that the audience will react. You’ll need to find some space for, “There’ll be worse casualties than eggy hair...".'
Moments such as above need to be carefully considered and Michael ensures that every instance of physical contact between actors, including the ‘Chinese Burns’ Helen inflicts on Bartley, has been covered in dedicated fight rehearsals.
At the end of Scene Six, Kate – played by Ingrid Craigie – ‘slowly enters from the back room, absent-mindedly'. The scene is run to the end, following which Michael comments to Ingrid: ‘There’s something about the simplicity of what you’re doing that tells us exactly where you are in this place. It’s a nice understated way of bringing the issue of depression on stage.’
Week Three, Day Three
There are many more actors in the rehearsal room today as the cast return to working on Scene Eight, a large ensemble scene. At this mid-point of rehearsals Michael makes some general observations, particularly with regard to the attitude towards the performance and how it will be received: ‘Don’t even consider the prospect of being liked by an audience. I invite us all to not try and get their sympathy.’ He warns the cast against being ‘too helpful’ towards them by softening the play, encouraging the actors to embrace its harshness: ‘Be quite brutal with your own character – be tough, ruthless, violent – that’s when the play comes alive.’
The cast get into position for the start of the scene and with Michael’s call to order – ‘Here we go…’ – they run it once through. Afterwards, he comments: ‘It’s absolutely thrilling when you’re all bang on cue and don’t let anything up. Don’t stretch lines out, drive them through.’ He asks the actors to consider the shifting focus within the scene: ‘You can really help us, the audience, understand. In this scene, when we’re watching backs and heads, you need to be fixated on whatever it is you’re looking at to help us see what we need to.’
Michael then gives individual notes. Focusing on Bartley’s question to Bobby – ‘Babbybobby, you weren’t in long with the polis at all when you was took down for Johnnypat’s head-stoning, how comes?’ – he asks Conor to, ‘Help us a little bit - find your way through the line, get under the skin of it'. Of Kate’s line referring to Billy - ‘Not a word from him’ - Michael says, ‘Ingrid, try and do that absolutely reflectively, to yourself'. He turns to Pat Shortt, playing Johnny: ‘One thing you could help us with, Pat – stand up on “What’s this that Johnnypateen hears?” to show us the significance of that moment.'
The scene is run one more time to consolidate the session’s work. ‘There’s been lots of fantastic choices made today,’ reflects Michael afterwards. ‘Try and hold onto that.’ Looking towards the week ahead he makes a request: ‘I’d love you to use this coming weekend to go through the script one more time, to do final line learning and get the detail of the words. You need detailed work to be able to riff and to surf laughs with an audience.’ Michael ends the day’s rehearsal by observing, ‘It’s the middle of week three and you’re all in a really good place'.
Week Four, Day Four
There’s a different energy in the rehearsal room today as the move to the theatre approaches. The atmosphere is even more focused, as everyone concentrates on refining the work done over the past four weeks.
Composer and Sound Designer Alex Baranowski is present to start integrating his score and soundscape - incorporating wind, sea, etc. - with the performance. Michael is keen to introduce the above to the rehearsal room, and in particular to play the cast the music used in the scene changes – ‘So you can feel it'. They listen to the haunting music that marks the transition from scenes eight to nine.
The cast then run Scene Nine, starting with the movement out of the previous scene. Afterwards Michael offers his thoughts: ‘It’s thrilling when we go at that pace. It’s so satisfying for us, the audience, to have to do the work and catch up. Let’s just go back on a couple of tiny things, though. One or two little reminders.’ He asks individual actors to pick out certain words – ‘I’m missing it, help us there’ – or he’ll say, ‘Question: Have you, Kate, been listening?’ (In response to Billy’s line, ‘Was you listening, Aunty Kate?’) He encourages Dan not to ‘go too into yourself’ on that line. To another actor, Michael comments: ‘Take out the pause there - don’t let the audience in. We were firing on that, keep picking up the cues.’
He also wants to ‘tidy up’ some blocking. ‘The staging of that doesn’t particularly work. To get the best out of that, is there a version where…’ And he’ll make a suggestion for re-blocking a moment or re-timing a cross. Michael’s not convinced by the attempt at an embrace between Eileen and Billy: ‘It’s just becoming a bit cutesy.’ He suggests it needs to feel more awkward – gestures of affection don’t come easily to these people.
Michael then reminds the cast that they’re ‘putting the first half together’ the following morning. ‘All I would ask is that you look over what you need to do in order to raise the game – tighter on lines, cues, etcetera – to up the energy and the play.’
The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh (Methuen, 1997) - The text of the play
The following books were in the rehearsal room for The Cripple of Inishmaan:
Magnum Ireland – Thames & Hudson
Ireland’s Islands – Landscape, Life and Legends – Peter Somerville-Large
The Burren and the Aran Islands – Exploring the Archaeology – Carleton Jones
The Burren and the Aran Islands – A Walking Guide – Tony Kirby
The Aran Islands – A World of Stone – Mairéad Ashe FitzGerald
Walls of Aran - Sean Scully
Images of Aran – Photographs by Father Brown 1925 & 1938 – E.E. O’Donnell
Framing the West – Images of Rural Ireland 1891 - 1920 – Ed. Ciara Breathnach