In the mouths of Hynes' actors, the coarseness and banality of that life becomes more than an occasion for much humor. In subtle contrast to the self-effacing language of insult and pettiness, it becomes a kind of brilliant naïve music. The opening dialogue between Billy's aunties, for instance, recalls Beckett as the two women, waiting anxiously for Billy's return, pass the time side-by-side behind a long freestanding counter, facing blankly out to the audience as they trade a volley of simple lines about a "bad arm" as if the subject were a ping-pong ball, setting up a rhythm that is its own message and meaning, an idle sport marking time in the cadence of a children's nursery poem.
If looks and words are deceiving here, so too are the initial impressions we have of Billy in others' eyes: there are layers of unacknowledged perception at work between these characters. We, of course, see right away that Billy, despite an inflated reputation for cow-staring, is anything but vacuous. Indeed, he is easily the island's most decent, intelligent, and charming inhabitant. And Murphy plays him with a long-suffering cool in which a sweetness and determination will not be silenced, as well as an offbeat physical grace. His Billy shuffles across the floor with a habitual ease that has something like a joy in it, something between a sashay and a swagger, as if he were a jazz musician stroking a set of brushes over a snare top.
The Cripple of Inishmaan makes good sport of the notion of superiority, moral or otherwise, in rural life. Taking his cue from the historical moment flagged and deceptively packaged by Man of Aran (whose depictions of traditional Aran life were in many cases already antiquated by the 1930s), McDonagh wrests his subjects from the premodern caricatures in Flaherty's stagy documentary. (A late scene has the characters, sans Billy, gathered to watch the completed Flaherty film, marveling with some frustration at a slow-to-unfold shark-hunting sequence as if it were from another world altogether.) McDonagh, however, a boyhood visitor to the region but otherwise a life-long Londoner, does so not exactly in the name of realism, since his comedy is hardly an effort at documentary and trades in caricatures of its own. At the same time, while taking a contagious delight in mocking certain ethnographic and nationalist pretenses, he lets us glimpse in his characters a compassion — heavily guarded beneath an otherwise hearty brutality — that does not lie.
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN
Wed/11–Fri/14, 8 p.m.; Sat, 2 and 8 p.m.; $68
UC Berkeley, Bancroft and Telegraph