On the surface, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh and British stage and screen star Daniel Radcliffe aren't the most likely pair. After all, McDonagh was the enfant terrible of the British theater scene, and author of some of the most biting, violent plays on stage today—meanwhile, Radcliffe made his name as the star of the (mostly) family-friendly Harry Potter series. But these two talents have found a natural fit in The Cripple of Inishmaan, McDonagh's play about a disabled Irish boy named Billy (Radcliffe) in the remote Aran Islands. Billy is determined to break out of his dull, tedious life by landing a role in the film being made on a nearby island of Inishmore. Read on for a look at the play's humble beginnings in Ireland to its Broadway debut at the Cort Theatre on April 20.
Setting the Scene
In 1934, filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty traveled to the remote Aran Islands to make a fictional documentary (yep, that's a real thing) about the people who lived there, on three islands off the western coast of Ireland: Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer. Flaherty filmed his new project, Man of Aran, on Inishmore, the closest to the Irish mainland. He cast locals to play locals engaged in local activities like fishing, potato farming, and hunting for sharks. Flaherty wasn't big on accuracy—apparently shark hunting had ended over 50 years earlier—but boy was it pretty.
A Slow Starter
Fast-forward 37 years: Martin McDonagh was born in England in 1970 to Irish parents (mother, County Sligo; father, County Galway) who had left home looking for a better life. Following in his older brother John's footsteps, Martin dropped out of school at 16 to be a writer, which basically meant living on the dole, watching movies and TV and reading books that John brought home, according to The New Yorker. He'd hold down jobs…but just long enough to be eligible for the dole again.
Zero to Sixty
When McDonagh was 22, his parents moved back to Ireland, leaving Martin and John in their house in South London. After John left to pursue screenwriting in America, Martin was alone, and he started to write every day. After breakfast each morning, he would sit down at a child’s desk in his bedroom and write with a pencil in a spiral notebook. In nine months, he'd written drafts of seven plays—almost his entire body of work for the stage. (He's only written one play produced since then, 2010's A Behanding in Spokane.)
How Billy Was Born
From McDonagh's crazy-prolific months came The Cripple of Inishmaan, which he wrote in five weeks. It's the first of his Aran Islands trilogy (the second is The Lieutenant of Inishmore and the final The Banshees of Inisheer—his only play that hasn't been staged because McDonagh says “it isn’t any good.”) In Inishmaan, a young crippled orphan named Billy is determined to land a role in the film being made on nearby Inishmore—Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran. It's wildly funny and, compared to some of his other works, downright sweet.
Hitting the Big Time
McDonagh started sending his plays out to theaters. Most ignored him, but Garry Hynes of Druid Theatre Company in Galway jumped. "I very clearly remember reading [A Skill in Connemara] aloud and throwing myself on the floor in paroxysms of laughter,” she told The New Yorker. Beauty Queen premiered in Galway in 1996; nine months later McDonagh was receiving the Most Promising Playwright Prize at the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards. In 1997, he became the first author since Shakespeare to have four plays on the London stage at the same time.
Cursing 007 & Kissing Jessica Lange
As it turns out, McDonagh didn't care much for the theater when he was starting out. When he went to the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, McDonagh was so nervous that he and his brother got drunk before they went. "Sean Connery came over and told us to shut up and I told him to f*ck off," McDonagh told The New Yorker. "Apparently I kissed Jessica Lange, but I have no memory of that whatsoever.”
Up and Running
Beauty Queen was followed quickly by the premiere of The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Royal National Theatre in 1996, when McDonagh was just 26. 19-year-old Dublin actor Ruaidhri Conroy played Billy, with Dearbhla Molloy and Anita Reeves as his adopted aunts, Eileen and Kate. The reception was nothing short of ecstatic. "This play will last," wrote Variety, "And if there’s any justice, the production will, too." It did—in 1998, Conroy and Molloy reprised their acclaimed roles at the Public Theater in New York. It was revived again in the Big Apple as a collaboration between the Atlantic and the Druid Theater Companies in 2008, and once again, it received raves.
Enter Harry Potter
When Tony-winning director Michael Grandage wanted to bring Cripple back to the English stage in 2013, Daniel Radcliffe jumped at the chance. "There are so many people who would cut off their left arm to do The Cripple of Inishmaan," he told Broadway.com. "No pun intended!" Since the play doesn't specify exactly what is wrong with Billy, Radcliffe had to do his research. "I’ve decided, based on what information you do get from the play, that cerebral palsy was a viable option for what Billy could have had." He hired a coach with mild cerebral palsy to teach him the physical mechanics of the condition.
Billy's a Hit
Radcliffe joined a stellar cast of Irish actors, including Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie as his adopted aunties and newcomer Sarah Greene as Helen, the feisty object of Billy’s desire. When the new production opened June 18, 2013 at the Noel Coward Theatre, it earned raves—Ben Brantley of The New York Times said Radcliffe "delivers his finest stage performance to date as a grotesque who fades into the crowd."
Hopping the Pond
What does one do after mounting a wildly successful revival on the London stage? Bring it to Broadway, of course! The entire London cast is making the trip to the Great White Way for a limited engagement at the Cort Theatre. Radcliffe, who was last seen in the Rialto revival of How to Succeed…, may be the most excited of them all. "I hope there never comes a time when I haven't been to Broadway in more than a few years," he told Broadway.com. "I just love working here."