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A play that punctures perceptions of Ireland

Irreverence lives in black comedy of 'Inishmaan'

Tadhg Murphy (pictured) as Billy in “The Cripple of Inishmaan.’’ Director Garry Hynes has spent her life in the west of Ireland, the same part of the country that Martin McDonagh has used as the landscape of his plays, including ‘Inishmaan.’ Tadhg Murphy (pictured) as Billy in “The Cripple of Inishmaan.’’ Director Garry Hynes has spent her life in the west of Ireland, the same part of the country that Martin McDonagh has used as the landscape of his plays, including ‘Inishmaan.’ (Ros Kavanagh)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / January 30, 2011

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The director Garry Hynes was on the phone from Ireland, and the talk had turned to John Millington Synge, the Irish playwright whose “Playboy of the Western World’’ courted outrage and provoked riots in Dublin a century ago.

“You know, at a time when the country demanded that all Irishmen were pure and good, he writes a play about a hero who murders his father,’’ she said.

It was afternoon in Galway, where Hynes is artistic director of the Druid Theatre Company, and she was on her lunch break from a rehearsal of “The Cripple of Inishmaan.’’ A dark comedy by Martin McDonagh that she revived to acclaim at the off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company two years ago, it comes to the Paramount Theatre this week, its second stop — after Roscommon — on a five-month tour of the United States and Ireland.

Hynes was mentioning Synge because McDonagh, whom she has championed since he was an unknown writer, “comes in for something of the same sort of criticism’’ that was aimed at his dramaturgical forebear. When McDonagh’s breakthrough 1996 play, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,’’ became an international hit, there were those who took the success of a drama with a matricidal daughter at its center as “a slur on Irish nationhood,’’ she said.

“It’s nothing of the sort, you know?’’ said Hynes, who premiered that play in Galway and London, brought it to Broadway in 1998, and, for her production of it, became the first woman to win a Tony Award for best director. “There’s always been far too close a relationship in this country, I think, between art and how we see ourselves as being represented.’’

Such sensitivity isn’t as acute as it once was, she allowed. “But you still find a significant minority who’ve been critical of Martin’s plays on the basis that they send up Irish people rather than authentically represent them — as if somehow or other authenticity was the first obligation of the artist. It absolutely isn’t.’’

How the Irish are represented is, in fact, a theme of “The Cripple of Inishmaan,’’ set in 1934 on the Aran island of Inishmaan (Irish spelling: Inis Meáin), off the west coast of Ireland. The grain of historical truth around which McDonagh builds his play is the shooting there of American filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty’s famed “Man of Aran,’’ a movie that is often called a documentary despite its use of fictional elements to portray the people and the culture.

In McDonagh’s play, teenage Billy sees the filming as his chance to escape Inishmaan, where a pair of kind but dotty sisters have raised him since his parents’ drowning deaths years before. The islanders are variously drunken, violent, comically ignorant, and insensible of delicacy. All of them, his adoptive aunts included, call him Cripple Billy because of his bad arm and a leg that gives him a shuffling gait.

“The setting of the play is, you know, an invention for Martin,’’ Hynes said, seeming slightly worried that this might be misconstrued. “It wouldn’t have been to do with a detailed sort of reading of what the situation was.’’

Wary of ethnic pigeonholing, Hynes argued that the fundamental allure of McDonagh’s drama has little to do with its locale.

“I think Martin’s appeal is that he — to be absolutely honest with you — he actually writes, you know, terrific plays. And any writer who does, it doesn’t really matter where they’re set,’’ she said. “But it is true to say that Martin takes perceptions of Ireland and punctures them. D’you know what I mean? So like, the running joke in, for instance, this play, ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’: ‘Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place if German people want to come and live here.’ ‘Ireland mustn’t be such a bad . . .’ That is something Irish people say, or used to say.’’

Even so, she noted, it’s not as if McDonagh himself is a local.

“You know, he didn’t actually grow up in Connemara,’’ she said. “He grew up in London — but at the same time has enough knowledge, through his relations and his parents and grandparents, of the place to be able to stand outside it and see it with a kind of an eye that other people might not necessarily have.’’

“The Cripple of Inishmaan’’ marks Hynes’s return to the plays of McDonagh, whose “Leenane’’ trilogy, including “A Skull in Connemara’’ and “The Lonesome West,’’ she premiered at Druid and in London in the late 1990s.

The director has spent her life in the west of Ireland, the same part of the country that McDonagh has appropriated as the landscape of his plays. Born in tiny Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon, she moved to Galway at 12 and lives there still.

“Garry has an incredible force and vision and passion as a director. She’s also deeply Irish,’’ said Neil Pepe, artistic director of Atlantic Theater Company, which has a long and lauded history of producing McDonagh, both on Broadway and off, with Hynes and without her. Atlantic is co-producing “The Cripple of Inishmaan’’ with Druid.

“You couple one of the great Irish directors with Martin’s irreverence and willingness to tell the truth no matter what, and I think sparks fly,’’ Pepe said.

It’s Hynes’s sense of what it means to be Irish, he suggested, that allows her to understand “the truth of both the humor and the tragedy’’ in McDonagh’s plays. But ask Hynes how being rooted in the west of Ireland helps in interpreting McDonagh’s work, and her answer is somewhat the opposite of Pepe’s. What it has allowed her to grasp, she explained, is the fiction of the plays: that they are acts of imagination.

“There is a sort of knowledge that the plays don’t have to be authentic or documentary,’’ she said. “I think we feel free to see how playful these plays are.’’

“Playful’’ isn’t always the first word that comes to mind where the 40-year-old McDonagh is concerned. Though “The Cripple of Inishmaan’’ isn’t especially violent, his work — such as “In Bruges,’’ his 2008 hit-man movie — often is. As Pepe cheerfully pointed out, “bodies are sawed up’’ and “cats explode’’ in “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.’’ Atlantic’s 2006 production of the play, which transferred to Broadway, used three gallons of blood on stage every night, he said.

“Martin, over the years, has always had a reputation as a rebel, a bad boy, which I’ve always loved about him,’’ Pepe said. “He may very well be a rebel and may very well be strong enough to state what he feels and not really care what people think about it.’’

And yet, Pepe is convinced that “there’s a huge heart to his work’’: that it is entirely possible to locate in McDonagh’s plays “the love and the humor beneath the dark and the macabre.’’

If he is right, perhaps that’s what the real people of Inishmaan will detect when they come face to face this June with the islanders the rebel’s imagination conjured.

“The odd thing about ‘Cripple of Inishmaan,’ ’’ Hynes said, “is it’s never actually been performed on the island.’’

This production aims to change that, ending its tour with two performances in the same hall where the islanders in the play watch a screening of Flaherty’s “Man of Aran.’’

“Next June in the hall on Inishmaan,’’ Hynes said, “Inishmaan people will be watching Inishmaan people watching a film of themselves made in 1934. It’s gonna be a rather special moment, I think. Art meets life meets art meets life.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN Presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Theatre, Wednesday through Feb. 6. Tickets: $25-$79. 617-824-8000, www.artsemerson.org