This summer, Michael Grandage and his company have revived two plays – the second of which, Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, is currently playing at the Noel Coward theatre. The play is a black comedy about a bizarre series of events that take place in Inishmore, a fictional Northern Irish town, in 1993. Will Irvine plays Christy, and I caught up with him while he was enjoying a break from rehearsals in a park, just after they’d opened in previews.
“We’ve done five shows now, which is going very well! The reaction has been very positive – we’ve had people laughing and clapping and sticking around to say nice things, so we couldn’t have asked for anything else recently.”
A show like Lieutenant obviously (hopefully) will invoke a lot of laughter, and change drastically as soon as you have an audience watching. How have they found this affects the show?
“We always knew that with the comedy the audience were going to make a difference to the rhythm of the show. They want to laugh a lot, so we’ve been working out over the last few days – which is a joyous thing to work out! – which laughs we want to talk through to get to the big punch line, or which we want to let settle before we get to the next bit of the plot. It’s been a kind of laughter-engineering, which has been a lot of fun.”
As an Irish actor, I wonder when Will first interacted with Martin McDonagh’s work – and it’s something he’s been thinking about already.
“The first time I even heard his name was sitting at a production of this play in Dublin at the Dublin Theatre Festival, and it was actually fifteen years ago, in 2003. I bought a ticket as a drama student, went in having no idea what to expect, and I still remember the exact feeling of exhilaration, of thinking: you’re not allowed to do this on stage! You’re not allowed to change the rules like this! Audiences were screaming and gasping and talking to each other and talking to themselves. So that was my first introduction to his work, and it was a joyous introduction. The play isn’t done terribly often, so I’m delighted to be able to be in it this time round.”
Has McDonagh been in the rehearsal room?
“He has! He’s been in and out – he was in early in rehearsals, and then has been in to see previews. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I was both excited and a little intimidated to have him around. Someone of his stature. But he’s been very kind and has given very helpful notes, and has been very supportive. And I think he’s happy with the production too! You feel in very safe hands knowing that the author is in the room, and around to help with any problems that you might come up against. He’s been wonderful.”
As with most of McDonagh’s plays, The Lieutenant of Inishmore straddles moods. Set in a small Northern Irish village in 1993, it’s just as dark as it is funny, and deals with situations both serious and bizarre. Will agrees, and says they’ve spent a lot of time working this out in rehearsals.
“If you start playing it for laughs then it can easily stop being about anything, and if you play it in a joyless way then it becomes heavy and dead. We’ve been tuning it up and down through rehearsals and previews, and we’ve hopefully now found the place that Martin was aiming for: if you play mistakes and situations for real, and the characters’ intentions for real, then the inherent ridiculousness and contradictions, absurdities, are funny to an audience. We have to surf over the laughs and make sure we don’t get too carried away.”
And the plot is so complex as well – is it difficult to make sure the audience aren’t losing it in the humour?
“It is so well crafted – there can be a set up in scene 2 that if the audience miss then they won’t understand or find the payoff funny in scene 5. So they’re a big help with that, in that you know instantly if you haven’t hit it right. You spend a lot of time in rehearsals thinking ‘is that clear?’ but then it’s totally clear once you’re with an audience. And they’re hungry to hear every line, because once it starts they know that they need to pick up on the clues and that everything can change on a hairpin.”
Hopefully this won’t be too huge a spoiler, given that the marketing material for the play has all shown anyone who doesn’t know the play that cats are somehow involved, but I’m too curious not to ask: can Will tell me anything about his onstage feline relationship?
“I’m not sure what I’m allowed to say! Cats are a big part of the play, and there’s a lot of different varieties of cat. A lot of time has gone into making sure the cats in the play work as they’re meant to, as they have to do things, or have things done to them. I can say that no cats have been harmed during the process of the play.
Any final thoughts?
“I guess just to stress that it’s so rare to be able to be in a play that you have such a fondness for, and I’ve been really lucky to do so. I’d say it’s the perfect play to send anyone who hasn’t been to the theatre before to see – and if it’s someone who sees lots of plays as well, it breaks all the rules so would be great for them too. I just want to share my enthusiasm for it!”
I ask if Will wishes he could watch it.
“I had tickets booked to see it before I knew I had been cast!”
The Lieutenant of Inishmore is on at the Noel Coward theatre until 8th September. Tickets start at £10.00 and are available here.