The Lieutenant of Inishmore ★★★★★
My personal problem with playwright Martin McDonagh is that every time I see one of his works—The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Pillowman, Hangman, and even the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—I think: I love the rest, but this is my favorite. So as of today, I nominate my new favorite as The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which is being given a blazingly ferocious revival by director-producer Michael Grandage at the Noël Coward Theatre on St. Martin’s Lane.
The lieutenant of the occasion is Aidan Turner, whose popularity courtesy of the television series Poldark has attracted full and enthusiastic houses. (The 20-somethings around me had never seen a play before, and I’d have to imagine they left thinking that if theater is this exciting, they’ll sure come back for more.) Not being a viewer of Poldark or the Hobbit trilogy (in which he played Kíli), Turner is new to me. He is very good as Padraic, the Irish National Liberation Army soldier who is “too mad” for the IRA. And for the INLA, too. With a big smile, an impressive (if perennially blood-splattered) physique, and a mighty good sense of the ridiculous, Turner is wonderful as the sadistic assassin who—through it all—pines for his beloved Wee Thomas. His cat, that is. The sight of Turner sitting on the belly of a freshly and gruesomely-disposed corpse, lovingly cradling the carcass of his headless feline, is gruesomely tender.
McDonagh’s notion here was apparently to take the Irish troubles—he wrote the play in 1993, before peace was brokered, although it wasn’t originally produced until 2001—and present an absurdist view of the fighters; sort of like Duck Soup, 60 years on. It turns out that while a little bit of severely cruel violence can shake an audience to its core (see Beauty Queen of Leenane, with the hand on the hot griddle), two hours of unspeakably gruesome violence can bring nonstop hilarity. Don’t know if I’d recommend other playwrights attempt this, but McDonagh makes it altogether exhilarating. What we get is something like farce-Tarantino, and despite the gore you simply can’t stop laughing.
It is hard to compare Grandage’s production to the excellent 2006 Broadway version (which was directed by Wilson Milam, who had also staged the 2001 R.S.C. premiere); my guess is that the current version is as good if not better. Let’s just say that Grandage handles McDonagh’s extravagances as if he was sitting by the playwright’s elbow during the writing. The cast meets the material in spectacular fashion, treating the violence and excesses as if they were mundanely normal. Standing out is Charlie Murphy as Mairead, the local tomboy with a flame for Padraic and a talent for shooting the eyes out of cows. A talent which turns out to be quite helpful, thank you. It also turns out that she too has a beloved cat, and beware.
Chris Walley, with a long red mane, is fine as the girl’s bicycle-riding brother who sets the violence in motion by accidentally running over the cat (or does he?). He is perfectly matched by Denis Conway as Padraic’s father, properly and wisely wary of his psychotic son. The rest are delightful, with a fine touch displayed by Will Irvine as Christy, the one-eyed INLA chief sent out to restrain Padraic. Who, formerly, shot out Christy’s other eye with a crossbow.
The result: An evening of blood, torture, decapitation and body parts that is bristlingly, brutally funny yet unexpectedly tender. I mean, how can you hate a fellow who demonstrates enduring love for Wee Thomas? To use a folksy expletive liberally peppered through McDonagh’s script, The Lieutenant of Inishmore is fecking brilliant.
The King and I ★★★★★
The Lincoln Center Theater production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I was hailed as one of the finest modern-day revivals of Golden Age classics when it opened at the Beaumont in 2015. Under the direction of Bartlett Sher, the Tony-winning production played a full year at Lincoln Center, embarked on a long and successful national tour in 2016, and has now landed at the London Palladium. With Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe from the New York production recreating their roles, Sher’s excellent creative team (choreographer Christopher Gattelli and designers Michael Yeargan, Catherine Zuber, and Donald Holder) intact, and scenery and costumes in luxuriant shape, The King and I works every bit as well as it did in New York.
Better, in one key aspect: Japanese actor Watanabe (The Last Samurai) was strong in performance as the King back in 2015, but his natural charm was somewhat dampened by a visible concentration on getting the words—and the musical notes—right. Reports from later in the run suggested that he eventually mastered the language. What we have in London now, three years later, is a King in full command with—yes!—the bravura of Brynner.
O’Hara, unsurprisingly, is her usual self as Anna. Which to those of us who have followed her from The Sweet Smell of Success onward, means pretty much sheer perfection. (She is human, though; at the performance attended, she got lost during her soliloquy and missed a quatrain. She immediately recovered though, and elicited an unaccustomed, almost tearful audience response during the “I’ll not forget the children” interlude.) It was unusual for this theatergoer to see O’Hara enter, on shipboard, without a glimmer of response from the large audience. By the end, though, she had ’em on their feet and roaring.
The other visiting player is Tony-winner Ruthie Ann Miles, as Lady Thiang. She is only playing four performances a week at present, for reasons which needn’t be mentioned, and was not at the performance attended. She shares the role with Naoko Mori, who was fine (although Miles, in New York, added a layer of emotion to the show as she lurked, protectively, in the shadows). The Tuptim of the occasion, Na-Young Jeon, is perhaps the finest Tuptim I’ve seen. Others typically play the part effectively, but when they step forward for their big ballads seem to be saying—or at least whispering—“look at me, singing in the spotlight on Broadway!” Jeon has none of that; she gives a fully assured performance while never breaking the image of the slave who accepts but abhors her subservient position to her “lord and master.”
It has recently been announced, incidentally, that this production will be filmed at the Palladium—with O’Hara, Wattanabe, and Miles—for worldwide release on November 29, with an encore showing in the U.S. on December 4. Well worth putting on your calendar.
When Anna and the King plunge into “Shall We Dance”—or, specifically, the hand-on-the-waist final refrain, as they exuberantly waltz across the stage—we see what we’ve always wanted to see at this moment: an unambiguous sexual connection between the well-mannered schoolteacher and the barbarian ruler. This is what Hammerstein might well have intended in the first place, although this proved impractical as Gertrude Lawrence—who created the role and controlled the underlying rights—was 20-odd years older than King Brynner. Here at the Palladium, and unlike during press previews at the Beaumont, the passion is not merely implied but pulsatingly vibrant in this King and I.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore opened July 4, 2018, at the Noël Coward Theatre (London) and runs through September 8. Tickets and information: michaelgrandagecompany.com
The King and I opened July 3, 2018, at the London Palladium and runs through September 29. Tickets and information: kingandimusical.co.uk