Druid cast anxious about Washington's reputation for coldness

 

AMERICA:US president Harry Truman once said: ‘If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog’, writes LARA MARLOWE

MARTIN McDONAGH wrote The Cripple of Inishmaanat the height of the Celtic Tiger. Fifteen years later, the play is already a classic. When the Druid production opened at the Kennedy Center this week, I was struck by how pertinent the hilarious and tragic tale is to today’s Ireland.

I invited three colleagues, two Americans and a Dane, to the opening night. The play begins in Kate (Ingrid Craigie) and Eileen’s (Dearbhla Molloy) sparsely stocked shop, its shelves lined with tins of peas. The Danish journalist whispered to me, “Will it get that bad in Ireland?” The islanders of Inishmaan have the remedy of self-persuasion. “Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place so if the Yanks want to come to Ireland to do their filming,” says JohnnyPateenMike (Dermot Crowley), the village gossip. The “Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place . . .” line is repeated throughout the play, with a French dentist, “coloured fellas”, a German, sharks, even Cripple Billy (Tadhg Murphy), all wanting to come to Ireland.

The Americans and Irish may be close cousins, but the play reminded me how much more cynical are the Irish. The Washington Postcalled it “fiendishly funny” and said McDonagh’s characters “treat spite as a weapon of mass destruction”. At the end of Cripple Billy’s moving speech to BabbyBobby (Liam Carney), in which Billy apologises for having lied, I expected the two men to embrace. An American play would have ended with syrupy reconciliation. Instead, BabbyBobby beats the crippled boy with a lead pipe.

In American drama, good people are physically attractive; bad people are ugly. McDonagh makes pretty Slippy Helen (Clare Dunne), the most foul-mouthed, sadistic young lass imaginable. “If God went touching me arse in choir practice I’d peg eggs at that fecker too,” Helen says, explaining why she torments the local priest. “You have to be young to write like that,” observed one of my journalist colleagues.

America occupies a central place in the play. Cripple Billy wants to believe his parents were heading for America when they drowned. For Helen’s bumbling brother Bartley (Laurence Kinlan), America is the almost mythical source of all things good: telescopes and sweeties called Mintios and Yalla-mallows. In his farewell note, Billy warns his adoptive aunts that if they don’t hear from him, “It’ll only mean I’m happy and healthy and making a go of me life in America.” But when he returns, Billy mocks the “arse-faced lines” the Americans asked him to read in Hollywood: “An Irishman I am, begora! With a heart and a spirit on me not crushed be a hundred years of oppression. I’ll be getting me shillelagh out next, wait’ll you see.”

At the end of the day, Billy concludes, “America’s just the same as Ireland really. Just with more polis. And more down-and-outs.” The islanders mock their own reputation for friendliness. Mammy O’Dougal (Nancy Carroll) wonders why everybody wants to come to Ireland. “Because in Ireland the people are more friendly,” says her son JohnnyPateen.

In a quote worthy of a Martin McDonagh play, US president Harry Truman once said: “If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.” The Druid cast were understandably anxious about testing Washington’s reputation for coldness in the imposing Kennedy Center. In Boston, they received six standing ovations; in Washington, only one.

If I’ve found Washington to be a friendly place, it is thanks to the Irish. My week started with a lamb stew and chocolate fudge cake 86th birthday party for Tom Halton, the retired classics professor who is the patriarch of the Irish community.

The following evening, at his reception for Druid, Ireland’s Ambassador to the US, Michael Collins, showed off an article in Washington Lifemagazine about the launch of the Imagine Ireland cultural season. “Sexiest man alive? You betcha!” was the headline over a photograph of Collins with actor Gabriel Byrne, Ireland’s cultural ambassador. Byrne told Washington Lifehe didn’t mind the accolade from Peoplemagazine; what really bothers him is being labelled “dark and brooding”.

At the Kennedy Center’s backstage, opening night party, I talked to Garry Hynes, the petite titan of Irish theatre and Druid’s founder. Hynes’s next project will tell the story of mass emigration from Ireland, through a series of plays by a major Irish writer, with the working title This Strange Country.

My fourth Irish event of the week was a book launch for Patrick and Henry Cockburn, the father and son who have just published a harrowing work, Henry’s Demons, about Henry’s schizophrenia. Scattered through the book are references to the famous Anglo-Irish family’s home in Cork.

I received a thank-you note from the Danish colleague whom I invited to the Kennedy Center. “I understand why you enjoy life in the Irish colony,” he wrote. “They seem much warmer and fun than the Danish one. But do they really say feck so much?”

The Cripple of Inishmaanwill be at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre from February 21st-March 5th.