Martin McDonagh: Genius or Fraud?

Alexander Larman

Alexander Larman wonders if the director has lost his touch

03 November 2018 08:30

Until now, 2018 has been an annus mirabilis for the playwright, screenwriter and film director Martin McDonagh. His most recent film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) attracted critical acclaim and box office success, eventually winning Oscars for its leading actors, Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. McDonagh himself was awarded BAFTAs for Best Film and Best Director, and Golden Globes for Film and Screenplay. In London, actor du jour Aidan Turner played the titular Lieutenant of Inishmore in Michael Grandage’s much-praised sell-out revival his 2001 play. The Off-Broadway transfer of 2015’s Hangmen won the New York Theater Critics’ Circle award for Best Foreign Play. And, unusually for a playwright and director, his personal life made it into the diary columns, thanks to his high-profile relationship with the actor and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The staging of McDonagh’s newest play, A Very Very Very Dark Matter, at London’s Bridge Theatre should have been the cherry on the icing of an especially succulent cake.

In a bleak twist, that the writer himself might have enjoyed had it happened to someone else, that cherry has turned sour. The reviews of his latest magnum opus were not merely hostile, but actively angry. Matt Trueman sneered in Variety that McDonagh had produced a ‘very very very damp squib’. Other critics, including Christopher Hart in the Sunday Times and Andrezj Lukowski in Time Out, despaired that McDonagh’s patented style of ironic black humour had simply tipped into offensiveness, because the writing was not strong enough to support the absurd central conceit that Hans Christian Andersen’s stories were really written by a one-legged Belgian pygmy who he kept in a box. Hart, in a particularly damning one-star review, described it as ‘inept and repellent.’

As a long-standing admirer of McDonagh’s work, I turned up with the highest hopes, but the play is, alas, catastrophic. It’s the worst thing I’ve seen at the theatre since Joe Penhall’s Birthday (2012), and slithers onto the stage dramatically stillborn. If you find the central idea funny, then good luck, because nobody else in the audience seemed to. Scene after scene falls appallingly flat and, despite a typically assured Matthew Dunster production, complete with growling Tom Waits narration, there is a paltry amount of enjoyment to be had. A considerable number of empty seats in the stalls told their own story. The strangest thing is that McDonagh’s usual assurance seemed entirely lacking; even in its own warped world, coherence plays a forlorn second fiddle to would-be shocking moments. Frankly, the high point of the evening is hearing a uniped Belgian pygmy call Hans Christian Andersen a cunt.

This flop all the more surprising because it represents a surprising and hitherto unsuspected nadir in a glittering career. Since his first drama, The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996), McDonagh has managed to juggle critical and financial success while retaining a distinctive and usually challenging voice. His subjects have ranged from Leenane’s account of a difficult relationship between a lonely spinster and her domineering mother, to Hangmen’s grimly absurd tale of what a forcibly retired hangman-turned-publican should do when his daughter has been kidnapped by a ‘menacing’ young man. Controversy has, indeed, been to him what daffodils were to Wordsworth.

‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ (Martin McDonagh, 2018)

The opening scene of Hangmen represents the definitive McDonagh blend of humour and sadism. The miserable and terrified James Hennessy (a stand-in for the so-called A6 murderer James Hanratty) awaits his fate in a condemned cell when the bumptious, self-assured hangman Harry Wade arrives, with his cowering assistant Syd. In response to Wade’s bluff assurance that ‘it’ll all go easier for you, lad, if you don’t make a fuss’, Hennessy indignantly responds ‘Of course I’m going to make a fuss! I’m an innocent man!’ The two tussle verbally and physically, with Wade blandly ignoring Hennessy’s protestations of his innocence (‘just the whys and wherefores, nothing to do with me’), before Hennessy dents his professional pride by yelling ‘They could’ve at least sent Pierrepoint’. As Wade indignantly responds, ‘I’m just as good as bloody Pierrepoint!’, Hennessy loudly bemoans his fate, sighing ‘Hung by a rubbish hangman, oh that’s so me!’ The scene ends with Hennessy hanged and Wade, appetite piqued, hungrily heading off for breakfast.

If one finds that scene unsettling because of, rather than despite, the jokes, then McDonagh would probably be delighted. His work, at its best, thrives on a lack of compromise with the audience that sends his plays into a delirious netherworld, where the usual concerns of morality and good taste are thrust roughly aside, and a demented bacchanal of violence and laughter co-exist in their place. This is why a line such as the dryly hilarious ‘I’m just in the middle of shooting me dad’, delivered by the lieutenant himself, Padraic, in Inishmore works so beautifully; it’s appalling, but it illuminates character and situation with a razor-sharp clarity.

Many would describe the more experimental The Pillowman (2003), an account of a writer suspected of a series of horrific murders, as his masterpiece. Its formal adventurousness – blending children’s fairy tales with extreme violence – attracted an overwhelmingly positive critical reaction that could not be more different to the contempt levelled at its spiritual and infinitely inferior sequel, A Very Very Very Dark Matter.

His long-desired cinematic career has proved more problematic. After he won an Oscar for his short film Six Shooter (2005), he made a supremely accomplished feature debut, In Bruges (2008), with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as hapless contract killers, hiding out in the Belgian city while awaiting further instructions from Ralph Fiennes’ monstrous crime lord. (Echoes of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter [1960] were presumably intentional.) The performances – especially from Farrell, previously best known for being tabloid fodder – are sublime, the writing poetic and assured, and the humour as black as coal. It is a fantastic piece of cinema. Yet the suspicion lingered that McDonagh was enjoying his own outrageousness slightly too much. There is a dwarf character, Jimmy, who is presented as a drug-fuelled and priapic imbecile, obsessed by the idea of an impending racial war. The writing is very funny, as ever. But the crucial question is: do we laugh at the character’s absurdities despite his dwarfism, or because of it?

This flop all the more surprising because it represents a surprising and hitherto unsuspected nadir in a glittering career.

McDonagh’s open dismissal of all tenets of political correctness have gone hand in hand with his own incorrigibility. Early in his career, a journalist described him as seeming like ‘a clever hoax dreamt up by a committee of post-modernist pranksters’, and it is hard to avoid feeling that for every outrageous moment in his work that is justified thematically and emotionally, another is in there simply because he found it funny.  Although his public appearances show him to be thoughtful and modest, he first achieved notoriety by telling Sean Connery to ‘fuck off’ when Connery remonstrated with him for drunken shouting at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in the Nineties. (Deliciously, he doubled down on his insults when a tabloid journalist rang him the next day, after which he said his ‘mother wouldn’t speak to [him] for a week.’)

This sense of épater le bourgeois runs through both his work and life. He has consistently been at pains to sneer at theatre and his involvement within it, claiming to have prized film and music far above it, yet he was the youngest playwright since Shakespeare to have had four plays running in London simultaneously. If this is his third-choice career, he could have only been said to have accidentally excelled at it.

The desire to give established traditions and norms a kicking runs reached both its heights and, until now, its zenith in the form of his highly acclaimed Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018). Its presentation of an indomitable yet deeply human female protagonist, searching for her daughter’s rapists and murderers fortuitously chimed with the emergent #MeToo movement. Awards and acclaim followed; McDonagh might reasonably have expected Oscars for Best Film and Best Director. And Woody Harrelson, as a dying and compromised police chief, was heartbreakingly brilliant; his final speech, complete with jokes about Oscar Wilde’s penis, is possibly the most moving scene in McDonagh’s work to date.

‘A Very Very Very Dark Matter’ (Martin McDonagh, 2018)

But controversy intervened. Here, it revolved around the character played by Sam Rockwell, a thick and bigoted policeman with a history of racist violence (or, as he puts it, being in the ‘persons of colour torturing business’). Critics argued that he was treated too generously; he ends up, if not entirely redeemed, a three-dimensional human as capable of acts of self-sacrifice and decency as he is of throwing other characters out of windows. McDonagh dismissed the uproar by saying ‘We’re not making films for six-year-olds, we’re not making The Avengers. We’re trying to do something that’s a bit little more difficult and more thoughtful.’ Nonetheless, the backlash almost certainly cost him his second and third Oscars, which instead went to the less problematic The Shape Of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2018); a film about a relationship between a mute woman and a giant humanoid fish.

The figure that McDonagh has found himself compared to most often has been Tarantino, based on both men’s fondness for ornate dialogue, sudden bursts of violence and, perhaps, a residual sense of not giving a fuck. A more accurate comparison is probably Joe Orton. Both writers came from working-class backgrounds and began their careers young; Orton at 33, McDonagh at 25. They both delight in creating stylised speech for their characters – equal parts Wilde, Beckett and an East End stand-up comic – and in creating situations that gleefully skewer established institutions. Orton caused outrage by including a scene at the end of What The Butler Saw (1969) where the severed penis (‘missing parts’) of Winston Churchill is held aloft; McDonagh’s satire on the Troubles in Lieutenant of Inishmore proved so topical that the play was not produced for years, and then under the unlikely auspices of the RSC after the Good Friday Agreement. Both writers thrive on upending and destroying audience expectations with their leading actors; Orton portrayed The Beatles as polygamous libertines in his unproduced script for them in Up Against It (1967), and McDonagh’s casting of the peerlessly likeable Jim Broadbent as a sadistic police inspector in the first production of The Pillowman, and a decidedly un-Hans Christian Andersen in A Very Very Very Dark Matter continues his knack of subverting any expectations to wicked effect.  

As 2018 does not end entirely in the fashion that McDonagh may have wished it to, it’s worth musing on what his likely legacy to a new generation of writers and directors might be. Certainly, his inamorata, Waller-Bridge’s, recent series Killing Eve had a mostly seamless mixture of laughter and brutality, that seemed as indebted to his work as it was to hers and Luke Jennings, the author of the books on which it was based. Yet it’s hard to think of many others who embrace the dark side with quite such relish; one looks in vain for the dark hilarity of outraged sensibilities in, say, James Graham or Simon Stephens’ excellent work. A Very Very Very Dark Matter has its influential defenders – Michael Billington in the Guardian, Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times – and perhaps it will come to be reassessed in the wider oeuvre of his drama. However, there is little criticism more stinging than several hundred people sighing at what comes across as an ageing enfant terrible’s attempts to shock. We can only hope that the peerlessly talented Mr McDonagh’s next work will be worthy of his undoubted ability. So, Martin, perhaps ease up on the dwarf gags next time, eh?