In Martin McDonagh’s coal-black comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore, it isn’t curiosity that’s killed the cat. Rather, a few thumps with a gun butt and some nasty trampling have claimed the feline life of Wee Thomas.
That first furry death initiates a violent series of events that will destroy four men, two cats, one ponytail, a pretty yellow dress, and an unholy amount of shoe polish before the play is through.
Thomas’s demise summons his owner, Padraic (David Wilmot), home to the Isle of Inishmore. Padraic, “him the IRA wouldn’t let in because he was too mad,” heads a one-man splinter group. He spends his days de-nippling marijuana dealers and setting bombs in chip shops. Why chip shops? They aren’t as well guarded as army barracks, he explains. Once ensconced in his Da’s cottage, Padraic prepares to torture the men he thinks responsible—his father, Donny (Peter Gerety), and feckless village lad Davey (Domhnall Gleeson). He also enjoys an impassioned romance with Mairead (Kerry Condon), a 16-year-old lass with paramilitary ambitions and a penchant for shooting out the eyes of cows.
Director Wilson Milam, who helmed award-winning productions of the play at RSC Stratford and London’s Barbican Pit and Garrick theaters, oversees the mayhem with a merrier and more matter-of-fact touch than one would have conceived possible. He doesn’t stint with the violence—indeed there’s a lavish, Grand Guignol quality to the accumulation of blood and bodies—but neither does he linger too long on it. In the first act, the pacing suffers a certain jerkiness (some cast members are veterans of the previous production, others are new hires), but the second is nearly seamless. The cast impresses, particularly Wilmot as Padraic, a volatile mix of brutality and twee sentiment. He can blandly pull the toenails from a foe one minute and coo at a kitty the next.
Crafting such an absurd yet coherent character isn’t McDonagh’s sole success. As in his Broadway hit The Pillowman, he uses allegory to address political concerns, but in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, such literary maneuvers don’t feel overly clever or forced. Indeed, the symbolic content is so well integrated that it’s quite possible to enjoy the play in pleasant ignorance of it. But when Mairead sings the Fenian ballad “Patriot Game” (“Come all ye young rebels, and list while I sing/For the love of one’s country is a terrible thing”) or Davey, staggered, cries, “So all this terror has been for absolutely nothing,” McDonagh suggests he has targets more valid than cats in mind. Beneath the breathless laughter, he provides a melancholy study of power, retribution, and the absurdity of human action. And that marks this gory play, to employ an especially apt bit of Irish vernacular, a bleedin’ triumph.