Bringing it to life

By Siobhan Slattery

The long-awaited West End revival of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan opens this week. The first play in McDonagh’s self-styled Aran Island Trilogy tells the story of crippled orphan Billy Claven who hungers for a role in a film being shot in the neighbouring island of Inishmore. He is eager to escape the poverty and boredom of his life on the remote island of Inishmaan.

The dark comedy first opened in 1996 in the Royal National Theatre and is now set to return with an all star cast – chief among them Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter, Equus, A Young Doctor’s Notebook) in the title role of Billy – alongside Padráic Delaney (The Wind That Shakes the Barley and The Tudors) and comic actor Pat Shortt.

London-Irish McDonagh won two Olivier Awards for his  The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Pillowman in 2003 and 2004. Since then he has become even more widely known for his self-penned and directed movies In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.

Belfast actor Conor MacNeill  plays teenager Bartley McCormick, the brother of Helen and the woman with whom Billy is infatuated.  One of Conor’s early jobs saw him share the screen with Sir Ben Kingsley and Jim Sturgess in Kari Skogland’s 50 Dead Men Walking. He starred alongside Risteárd Cooper in the Irish comedy drama An Crisís, for which was nominated for an award for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy drama series at 2010’s Festival de Television de Monte-Carlo. After a role in Saving The Titanic he appeared with Holywood star Brendan Fraser in the independent comedy film A Whole Lotta Sole which is written and directed by Oscar winning Irish director, Terry George. Later this year, Conor will appear in Channel 4’s Coming Up: Call It a Night and in David Leon’s feature film Orthodox with Stephen Graham of This is England and Boardwalk Empire.

The Irish World spoke to Conor about The Cripple of Inishmaan.

The play is already in previews, are you pleased with the response so far?

It’s been great actually. It’s a funny thing because you’re rehearsing a comedy in a room with the same group of people for five or six weeks and we all know the play and get bored of it. Then to have 950 people can be a bit intimidating but the reactions have been incredible. They seem to be loving it and genuinely as well. I don’t think it’s forced, the laughs have been pretty big so I’m glad.

Are you excited for the proper opening?

Yeah, I can’t wait. I think from the previews, it’s in a really strong place at the minute so hopefully it stays that way. Hopefully it goes down well and people like it because it’s a really lovely play, and I think (director) Michael (Grandage) has done an incredible production, and there’s some brilliant actors on it. I just hope people clock onto that.

Were you familiar with the play before you got involved?

Yes I was. Growing up, I worked a lot in theatre in Ireland, so McDonagh is just part of the canon so I just know the work and I read it all. I think the only one I haven’t read is The Pillowman.  I read his stuff quite early on and loved him. But this is one I’ve wanted to do for so long and I think it’s one of his best. I love it, it’s a great play.

Tell us about playing the teenager, Bartley McCormick?

He’s brilliant, he’s incredible, he’s innocent and he just speaks his mind, and he sometimes has a bit more clarity than a lot of the other people in the play. But yeah, he’s lovely and it’s a lot of fun. Myself and Sarah Greene get to play brother and sister and we’re great friends in real life as well so it’s great to have that banter onstage.

The play is set in Inishmaan, off the west coast of Ireland. Do you think it was important to have a cast which all have strong Irish connections?

I think so, and I think they’d agree. You know just sayings and things like that that we know, and inclinations. Also I think there’s certain stuff, that might not be so funny that we can pick out and go ‘no, that’s actually quite funny because’ and we’re able to pick it out slightly better. At the same time it’s such a well written play, I think it’s all there for anyone approaching it, Martin’s put all the work into it and gave us all that lovely detail. I’m sure it helps…but I haven’t really thought of that actually.

The play hasn’t been seen in London since 1996. Does that add to the excitement bringing it back?

I think it’s actually exciting. That was 17 years ago so it’s a whole new audience. I think it will be a brand new play to them and it very much felt like that. It didn’t feel like we were approaching a play that had been done before. Martin came into the room, he changed the script slightly so it felt like we were approaching a new play. I think that’s really important because it’s the only way to make it your own.

How was it having the author on-hand to advise you?

It was amazing. The first week especially, just to have all the answers to all the questions that you had. It’s a big luxury to have the writer there. Normally the writer would be there if it was a new piece, but it’s been done before so it was really lovely to have him there.

The play’s lead actor Daniel Radcliffe is obviously already a huge star from the Harry Potter films but he is said to be pretty down to earth. What was he like to work with?

He’s completely down to earth, one of the gang. I obviously know he’s the star attraction, but he’s very much a part of the team and part of the ensemble.

He’s incredibly normal and an incredibly hard-worker. Really driven and dedicated. He obviously loves challenging himself which is really great to see in any actor.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as Billy

Pat Shortt is among the cast, mostly known for comedy (Father Ted, D’Unbelievables, Killinascully) but the serious acting talent he displayed in Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage is often overlooked…

Oh God, yeah. He’s got that new movie coming out, Life’s a Breeze which is a comedy but a very black comedy. Everything’s played quite straight. He’s amazing in this, he’s hilarious. When I heard he had got the part, I was like ‘inspired casting’. It’s as if the part has been written for him, ya know. He’s incredible and so much fun to work with.

What are the differences between stage and on screen acting? Which do you prefer?

I don’t have a favourite. I love good parts and really good scripts. That’s what I like. With theatre it’s about voice, and also keeping it alive every single night and keeping it real every night (which) requires a certain technique. I don’t think I have a favourite but if I do too much of one then I want to do the other again. It’s variety I enjoy. I suppose that’s why we do this job as well. It’s part of it, isn’t it? It brings an incredible lifestyle which is lovely and ever changing and spontaneous which is just the way I naturally am anyway.

So what’s next?

I’m busy with the play up until August 31. I have a show coming up on Channel 4 in July/August called Call it a Night which is written by Bronagh Taggart who is from Belfast as well, and then A Whole Lotta Sole is due for release on DVD in September, I think. And I’ve been doing some writing.

Can you tell us a bit about what you’re writing?

It’s a screenplay and we’re just trying to get it up with producers and stuff like that at the minute which is lovely. But I don’t know what will happen to it, we’re in the very early stages.

The Cripple of Inishmaan runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until August 31. For more information, go to:


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