Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 20, 2014
The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Michael Grandage. Set and costume design by Christopher Oram. Lighting design by Paule Constable. Composer and sound design by by Alex Baranowski. Hair designer by Campbell Young. Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, with Ingrid Craigie, Pádraic Delaney, Sarah Greene, Gillian Hanna, Gary Lilburn, Conor MacNeill, Pat Shortt, June Watson, Helen Cespedes, Leslie Lyles, Aidan Redmond, Josh Salt.
Yes, that Daniel Radcliffe, who as an adolescent attained worldwide heartthrob status as star of the Harry Potter movies and as an adult has been working feverishly, and so far successfully, to maintain it on screen as well as stage. (His Broadway outings alone have counted credible turns in Equus and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.) We're really expected to accept that this actor is a junior-league Elephant Man set atwist and left adrift on a tiny Irish island that seems intent on only stifling the dreams of its inhabitants?
We are and we do, not least because Radcliffe is proving once again that he's no slouch. Forgoing his natural boyish charm, and adopting a physicality that throws particular light on his character Billy's deformities (a wrist curved inward at his shoulder, one leg that lurches and another that doesn't bend at all), he depicts in every second a young man at odds with the world. And though Billy is at an age where staring at girls should be his preferred pastimeand he has settled on one, the sharp-edged Helen McCormickRadcliffe shows how and why Billy's outward and inward entanglements make him much more comfortable staring at cows.
That statement is very much true of everyone on Inishmaan, and McDonagh has carefully charted them and their personalities so that they're just as layered. The brusque Helen (Sarah Greene) hidesquite wella passionate nature and a sympathetic side. Billy's caretaking aunts, Eileen and Kate (Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie), tint their affection for their nephew with nervous tics that involve speaking to stones or binge-eating candy. Gossipmonger Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt) presents the picture of a self-contented story spinner, if one who's also trying to persuade his mother (a snappy June Watson) to drink herself to death. Even the well-meaning and helpful Babbybobby (Pádraic Delaney) harbors a secret dark side.
No one, in other words, may be taken at face value, and the interaction of the various levels of personalitieswho they are, who they aren't, and who they pretend to beis what gives The Cripple of Inishmaan its considerable emotional heft. But McDonagh, who's perhaps best known for his more brutal works (The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Pillowman in the theatre; Six Shooter, In Bruges, and Seven Psychopaths on film), has not left out the levity, which in the cunning repetition of words, phrases, and gags both elicits lots of genuine laughter and reminds of the safest, most elemental way there is to endure a dreary, soul-crushing existence.
Director Grandage and his designers (Christopher Oram on sets and costumes, Paule Constable on lights, Alex Baranowski on sound) highlight no shortage of the desolation of island life, and suggest the weightof history, of community, of familythat presses down on everyone and threatens to squelch their ambitions. Even more than with the fine 2008 Atlantic Theater CompanyDruid Theater revival (I did not see the original 1998 production), you're aware of the escape that Flaherty represents for these peopleand how well they'll survive if (or, more likely, when) his golden ticket doesn't cash out quite the way they plan.
A seamless ensemble furthers this goal, with Hanna and Craigie hilariously lost in their own shadowy reverie and unaware of the witty contradictions they represent in their own lives; Shortt an engaging, blustery presence you wouldn't mind delivering your own morning news reports; Delaney ideally balanced in a potentially volatile role; and Greene appealingly feisty in a part that swings, often haphazardly, between nurturing and nasty. The other performers, who include Gary Lilburn as the local doctor and Conor MacNeill as Helen's excitable brother, are just as good.
But Billy remains at the heart of it all, and it's a position Radcliffe is well equipped to occupy. Though nimble with the role's comedy, he's even stronger projecting the pathos that defines the boy best. Whether Billy is fretting over the parents he never knew to despairing of the life he's facing to feelingnot without reasonhe'll die in an American hotel room that resembles a prison cell, Radcliffe paints a complete picture of someone who's locked within an existence he didn't create for himself and sees no doors to a better place.
For him and everyone else in The Cripple of Inishmaan, of course, things are not always as hopeless as they seem. McDonagh ensures that the journey of Billy and the rest is one of recognizing where true ugliness is and how it may be overcome. As Radcliffe and his cast mates strive toward that goal, they and Grandage create, not accidentally, one of the handsomest shows in town.