Hotshot terrorist comedy just misses target

by Nobuko Tanaka

Though only in his early 30s, Martin McDonagh already has a 1998 Tony Award under his belt for his worldwide hit, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.” What’s more, his works have been staged in 38 countries — Japan among them.

His latest, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” has just landed on these shores following its hugely acclaimed premiere last year by the Royal Shakespeare Company, a West End transfer that had the critics scrabbling for superlatives — though “ferociously funny black comedy” featured in most notices — and his triumph in the Best New Comedy category of this year’s Olivier Awards.

Playing at the imposing Parco Theater in Shibuya, this funky exploration of the terrorist mind, directed by rising talent Keishi Nagatsuka (a contemporary of McDonagh and founder of the Asagaya Paradise theater company), is undoubtedly a summer standout.

Though mainly set in the present on Inishmore Island off the west coast of Ireland — where it starts with Donny, the father of the “hero” Padraic, debating with a neighbor how to cover up the death of his son’s beloved cat Wee Thomas — the first really stunning scene is set in Northern Ireland. There, we see Padraic dementedly torturing a local drug dealer, asking his victim (who happens to be suspended by his ankles from the ceiling) which nipple he’d rather have cut off. The dealer’s crime is to have sold dope to both Protestant and Catholic children alike, even though he’s paying money to a splinter group of the IRA to which Padraic belongs.

As he’s going about his gory work, Padraic gets a call from his dad in Inishmore, and hears the bad news about his dearest and only friend, the black cat Wee Thomas. Leaving his victim hanging, he hastens back home, where his dad Donny and their dozy teenage neighbor Davey are beside themselves wondering how to hide the truth about the cat’s death. Though this remote country house has been bathed in the blood of Padraic’s victims, it’s the fact that Wee Thomas was clearly murdered that becomes the focus of all concern.

Not for the faint-hearted, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” is also peppered throughout with f-words. In this Japanese-language performance, however, “f**k” is rendered as kusottare, meaning “shit,” which is really just so wide of the mark. I, for one, would happily award a prize to anyone who comes up with the “right” Japanese translation of this multifunctional Anglo-Saxon expression.

Nonetheless, for all its shock tactics and misplaced humor, this play has something powerful to say about that side of human nature where crass stupidity and ignorance combine with cruelty to terrible effect. Padraic’s crazed violence and puerile mentality — and the meaningless suffering they produce — are a true reflection of many of the violent tragedies we hear about almost daily on the news.

What’s even more shocking is that McDonagh has us laughing at this horror — and then makes us recoil from the fact that we have.

It must be said, though, that in this production the humor is largely lost. Yuichiro Nakayama as Davey conjures some wonderful comic moments, while the baleful absurdity builds well toward the climactic ending. Yet while Nagatsuka has a real ability with high-speed drama — akin to the “cool violence” of Hollywood auteurs such as Quentin Tarantino or Luc Besson — the way he goes about it here emphasizes the social commentary at the expense of the ridiculous.

For London-bred McDonagh (both of whose parents are Irish) — and for his British audiences — this social context is instinctively understood. For Japanese theatergoers, however, I would recommend a bit of background reading on Irish history and the IRA. That way, there will be much more here to appreciate — and more, too, to laugh at, in this chillingly absurd but all too plausible comedy.