Sarah Gibbs talks to Will Irvine, who is starring in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, about his love of the play, the tonal varieties across the drama and the fun of wearing an eye patch.
SG: Your acting credits include a variety of film, theatre, and television work. Can you tell me a bit more about yourself, and how you got to this point?
WI: I grew up in a small town in Northern Ireland and I don’t have any acting in my family or anything like that, but I had a great drama teacher at school who had an after-school drama club. He was brilliant. He would take plays apart and make things up and write extra bits and get us to help direct. So, the first things I did were school plays and that was where I got started. From there I went to drama school in Dublin and trained for three years and worked in Dublin for ten years. The thing about Ireland is that it’s a wonderfully vibrant but relatively small—in comparison to the UK or the States—acting community, so you can kind of work up and down the scale. You can be on stage at the National Theatre one week and then doing fringe stuff the next week and then doing a telly job the next week, so you get this wonderful, all-round exposure to all kinds of things. You’re writing a bit for the fringe, and directing a bit. That was a wonderful, intense way to get lots of experience. I’ve been in London for the last four or five years, and trying to take that experience over here. It can feel like starting from scratch sometimes, but all the skills and experience you have stand you in good stead. Now that we’re performing for nine hundred people a night, that experience is a great help.
Do you have a bucket list of roles, or do you focus on working with particular directors or companies?
Well, the honest answer most actors would give is that you don’t have as much choice in the work you do as you’d like. You’re reacting to the offers you’re given. Every time I look at a job, I try and assess whether there’s something I can learn from it. You don’t want to do a job where you feel like you’re repeating yourself, or that doesn’t offer any challenge. That can be if the part is challenging, or the style of the work is challenging, and if you can work with a director who you respect or who has great experience. Even working with other actors you admire is helpful. I’m lucky with The Lieutenant of Inishmore because it’s one of my favourite plays. I remember seeing it fifteen years ago, and being absolutely electrified by how funny and daring and outrageous it was. I was laughing like I was at a comedy gig rather than at the theatre. And then there’s [director] Michael Grandage, whose work I’ve admired and followed, and whom a lot of other actors have spoken highly of. I knew some of the other actors in the company – Aidan Turner, who’s obviously stellar, Denis Conway, Chris Walley, and Charlie Murphy – who are all very well-known actors in Ireland. So, it was kind of a perfect no-brainer job. It was a top-notch show across the board, and a great role as well.
Did the role of Christy have particular attractions? I mean, you get to wear an eye patch, which is pretty epic.
[Laughs] Yes, one of the few parts in theatre with an eye patch that isn’t a pirate.
They’re few and far between.
When I went in to meet with Michael for this, we had a big chat about this character in particular, and the play in general. There’s a serious edge to everything in the piece. There’s a lot of life and death situations and its dealing with terrorism and all those kinds of things. Christy is an INLA terrorist and hitman who is on a mission to kill somebody, so communicating the stakes of that is really important. But the play’s whole mechanics work by being a comedy, so how can you be realistic about the danger of it, but also give the audience permission to laugh, and not just allow them, but invite them and encourage them to laugh? I love playing comedy. It’s not something I did a lot of when I started out, but as the years have gone by, I’ve done more and more of it. I think Martin McDonagh’s writing is so clear about where the jokes can be landed, or where you can spin a line so that the audience can enjoy the contradictions of a character. The thing about Christy is that he’s a very serious, earnest, political terrorist, but unfortunately, he’s surrounded by some rather naïve, bickering henchmen. That contrast is inherently funny, so it’s finding the seriousness to contrast with the lightness of the henchmen, which unlocks all the lovely humour.
McDonagh’s work is a balance of humour and brutality, the former leavening the latter. Does the contrast have a greater significance for how McDonagh represents the groups or situations on stage?
I think McDonagh is a genuine, bona fide genius, and I think one of the reasons for that is the way he uses comedy to change an audience’s way of thinking about things. He’s like no other playwright right now in that he’ll have you laughing hysterically about something, which you rarely do at the theatre. And then, as you’re laughing, you realize you’re laughing about someone talking about killing someone, or about doing something horrendous, and that makes the audience question themselves, and wonder what their attitude actually is toward these things. You can do a serious, earnest play that says that terrorism is bad. Most people walking into the theatre would probably agree with that before they went in. But, by disarming us with laughter and pointing out some of the ridiculousness and contradictions of violence, I think he gets under our skin. We say, “I’m a bit like that some times. Maybe I don’t kill people or cats, but we all have contradictions.” I think the central contradiction of The Lieutenant of Inishmore is that this terrorist, Mad Padraic, is too crazy to be in the NRA and tortures people and cuts their nipples off, but he loves cats. And that’s a contradiction that’s funny because it’s so extreme; but of course terrorists love things. Even people who do terrible things have nice sides to them. That’s where I think his comedy really has a purpose because it highlights the contradictions which are the interesting bits of everything.
The play displaces the love which generally characterizes relationships between family members and comrades-at-arms onto animals. The inciting action is the murder of the cat, Wee Thomas. Is it important that the characters can love animals but not each other? Is it simply a vehicle for the comedy?
I think what he puts his finger on is that there’s no black-and-white. People don’t love all things unconditionally, and don’t hate all things unconditionally. There’s always moral compromises. People say “I’ll shoot you, but I won’t shoot you in the head. I’ll cut off your nipple, but not your favourite nipple” or “Beating your ma is a bad thing, but if it’s ten years ago, it’s not such a bad thing.” We all have moral compromises that are not as blatant as that. I think by pushing emotion out from humans to animals, by making it a bit lateral, McDonagh highlights that we all have those moral compromises, and he manages to make that very funny. He disarms us. When we’re laughing at something, we feel very safe, but then we realize we’re laughing at ourselves.
How did you prepare for the role? Did you find it difficult to relate to the character?
It’s funny. Michael was talking to us in week one about how he often uses backstories and encourages actors to go and work on backstories. Strangely, it’s not something we ended up relying on a huge amount in this show. The way I approached this, which I think is how Michael has approached it with a lot of the actors, is that, because it’s such a technical piece, and because you need to give the exposition and set up the jokes and plot points, you let the mechanics of the piece determine the choices you make as an actor. The underlying dynamic of the comedy for Christy is that he’s very serious. Much more serious than the others. He’s undermined. In order for the comedy to work, you have to make certain decisions. You can’t make him sarcastic or light. It might be interesting, but it would actually destroy the comedy of the scenes. With this play, the approach to character is sort of backwards. Usually, you’d do your character work and see how it affects the scene, whereas this play is so well-engineered, you start with the comedy and what the scene requires, and your character emerges from that. McDonagh has a really clear idea of the journey he wants the audience to take, and when he wants them to learn certain things. It’s so exciting to be in the audience because you genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next. He manages to keep you on your toes the whole time. It feels more like being on a roller coaster than being at a play, which is wonderful thing.
The play premiered in April 2001, just prior to the advent of present age of international terrorism. Does the elapsed seventeen years change the way we view the work?
We discussed the context of the play during preparation. It’s set in 1993, and was written around that time, even though it wasn’t staged until 2001. So, it was always a kind of period piece. Northern Ireland in 2001 after the peace process was a very different place to 1993, and it’s a very different place now. It being set in 1993 is very helpful because it’s still a period piece and relates to a specific time and place. We did talk about how terrorism has changed. I was talking to a young person recently about terrorism and mentioned the bomb warnings that the IRA used to phone in: the IRA used to ring the police to let them know that they were planting a bomb and asking if they could evacuate everyone so no one was hurt. I mean, that sounds like a Martin McDonagh plotline. Now the idea that a terrorist would not want to hurt someone seems ridiculous to us. In a way, that just highlights exactly what the play is looking at: moral codes and compromises.
What can McDonagh neophytes expect on opening night?
I just remember myself fifteen years ago sitting in this play in Dublin, never having seen or read any Martin McDonagh, and just thinking, “Oh my God! I can’t believe he wrote that! Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re allowed to do that on stage!” It was the feeling of someone breaking all of the rules and pulling the rug out from under your feet. You’re laughing in a way you’ve never laughed at a play and thinking about the world in a way you didn’t before. I think it’s the most fun you can have at the theatre. I would encourage anyone who hasn’t come across McDonagh to take in the show. It’s such a treat, and it’s great to be involved in a show I’m so passionate about.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore runs until the 28th July and stars Aidan Turner. Our thanks to Will for his time to answer our questions.