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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunday Feature: Toward Inishmore

Thomas Preece (Padraic in ...Inishmore)
(photo credit: Antonio Starnino)

By Kate Bligh 
(Special to The Charlebois Post)

I first saw The Lieutenant of Inishmore in New York five years ago.  I had seen McDonagh’s work before, and thought I knew what to expect.  Five minutes into the play, I was laughing and crying at the same time: this piece was darker, funnier, more insightful, and more brutal, than any of his previous offerings.  In this very tightly written and apparently simple piece, McDonagh takes a scalpel to the Irish psyche, slicing off the top layers of flesh and smearing the resultant mess all over any sentimental notions of ‘Irishness’ his audience members might have.

I knew from about half-way through the performance that I wanted to direct the play myself, sensing that its preoccupations with identity in so many of its forms – national, gender, and sexual - would have resonances with the unique cultural reference points of Montreal theatre-goers.  I also felt that the play would provide an ideal vehicle for some of the young and incredibly talented performers that I work with.  Last and not least, it’s a spectacular piece of theatre written in a knowing, virtuoso style, that really lends itself to stage performance, by someone who knows that live theatre can really pack a punch, even at the beginning of the 21st century.  How could I not take it on?  

This play has a large cast of seven men and one woman, with six of the characters being under the age of thirty: it provides meaty and challenging roles for younger performers.  Two years ago, I organised a read-through of the play for an invited audience of thirty, made up of theatre students and members of the Irish community.  When several of the audience members fell, quite literally, off their chairs with laughter during the reading, I knew it wasn’t just me that the play speaks to.  Dr Michael Kenneally of the Canadian School of Irish Studies at Concordia University began nudging me to produce an Irish play; the project was taking shape.  It is intended as a fully professional ‘stepping-stone’ project for graduates and imminent graduates (from all over the island of Montreal) in all aspects of theatre production and performance.  The production is enabling them to engage in professional standards of work and artistic achievement, under the mentorship of four established theatre artists (designer Eric Mongerson, fight director Jean-François Gagnon, voice coach Rea Nolan, and myself), and it will serve as a shop window for their talents.   

In some of its themes and preoccupations, Lieutenant is a very Irish play; in some ways, it is anything but.  Throughout this complex and insightful piece, McDonagh uses subtle and provocative means to explore aspects of queer-ness: sexual and gender identities are performed, questioned and rearranged as a range of human passions, from sentimentalism to anti-romantic violence (linked here in a less than subtle manner, to sexual repression), is unleashed.  As the playwright adapts, parodies, and moulds, various Irish archetypes, employing theatrical forms from across the ages, he builds a hilarious and repulsive portrait of untamed masculinity, as all the while the characters themselves assert the types of femininity, or ‘girliness’, that might be acceptable to them.  Plot-wise, it’s fairly straightforward: a psychotic terrorist learns that his beloved cat has met its demise, and sets out for revenge; there follows an astonishing series of reversals.  The play itself, whilst being painfully funny, requires the performers to shift their acting styles from high Greek tragedy to grotesque Australian soap opera, sometimes within the same scene.  In staging this piece, the design team and I have endeavoured to provide a set and technical elements that support and frame the complexity of meaning, and hybridity of styles, that we can only suppose McDonagh intended it to have.

The process was initiated in October 2009, when a production team was assembled and began preliminary production planning, and as well as dramaturgical preparations for the realisation of this play.  Casting was completed in December 2009, after audition notices were sent to the major theatre training institutions throughout Montreal.  Between January 2010 and May 2010, the actors underwent preliminary character analysis, dramaturgical research and script analysis. Throughout the year, the actors have been preparing with regular training intervals of Grotowski & Laban movement workshops, accent coaching, real hand gun training (involving a memorable mini-van trip to a gun club in Vermont), and mixed martial arts instruction. 

A stepping-stone program such as this does not exist elsewhere in the anglophone theatre scene in Montreal.  Temenos is challenging these young artists both creatively and professionally, with an intensive process of rehearsal and training, in order to both bring them to higher levels of performance skill, and to offer our audiences a night to remember.  It is a labour of love; a salute to the abilities of an up-and-coming generation of theatre artists; and an invitation to brave the January cold, and to take your seat in the Segal Studio for the Québec première of The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore opens at The Segal Centre, January 4. Click here for details.

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