Seven steps to Martin McDonagh
Irish audiences have never known quite what to make of Martin McDonagh’s films and plays. Here’s a short guide to his work
1 He really is an Irish writer
McDonagh was discovered in the mid-1990s when Druid Theatre’s Garry Hynes came across one his plays in her company’s pile of unsolicited submissions. “I couldn’t believe how funny it was,” Hynes says – so she quickly produced his first play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
International success soon followed, with Druid embarking on an award-winning tour to London’s West End and Broadway. Yet some critics were uncomfortable with McDonagh’s global prominence. His early plays present the west of Ireland as a horrible place, populated by people who are savagely cruel yet strangely innocent: like “monstrous children”, as Hynes puts it. The fact that he was a London-born son of Irish parents only bolstered the accusation that McDonagh was not an Irish writer laughing with us – but an English writer laughing at us.
Those attacks now seem begrudging, but McDonagh has tended to resist being categorised as Irish or English, saying that he feels somewhere between the two. He has an affinity with second-generation Irish band The Pogues and although his writing owes much to Pinter and Mamet, it draws freely on Irish traditions.
2 McDonagh and celebrity
McDonagh first came to the public’s attention not for his plays but for a high-profile spat with Sean Connery. He and his brother John (who later made the Irish movie The Guard with Brendan Gleeson) had been attending an award ceremony, where they disrupted a toast to Queen Elizabeth II. Connery told McDonagh to “shut up or leave”; McDonagh told Connery to f**k off. The tabloids jumped on the story. McDonagh has since described the event as “drunken eejit stuff”: the worst thing about it, he said, was that his mother wouldn’t speak to him for a week.
But even now he can provoke media attention for the wrong reasons, as seen when he told the New York Times that he wanted to beat up the playwright Conor McPherson, who (reportedly) said that McDonagh’s work was “stage Irish”.
3 Don’t believe everything you read in the papers
Enjoyable as his press interviews are, some of the things written about McDonagh are completely untrue. In 1997, for instance, Time magazine stated (accurately) that McDonagh was the only playwright, other than Shakespeare, to have four plays running simultaneously in London that year. Sometime later, a journalist misread that line and claimed that McDonagh was the first playwright since Shakespeare to have four of his plays running simultaneously in London. That genuinely daft statement has since been repeated in dozens of media profiles of the writer.
Many similar inconsistencies – and even occasional untruths – have been written about McDonagh, and while they boost his popularity, they may also undermine the appreciation of his work.
4 Actors love McDonagh
His new film Seven Psychopaths has a dream cast. With Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Woody Harrelson and others, it’s like a roll call of America’s most eccentric actors. That McDonagh can attract such talent is testament to his reputation as an actors’ writer. This was evident right from the start, when Druid’s Beauty Queen won Tony awards for two of Ireland’s greatest actresses, Marie Mullen and Anna Manahan. Since then, McDonagh’s international productions have featured extraordinary performances by actors such as David Tennant, Jim Broadbent, Billy Crudup and Jeff Goldblum.