Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane finds the dark underbelly of the U.S. not in the mean streets of New York or Chicago, but in the heartland.
Take a man searching for his missing hand – the mysterious, gun-toting Carmichael has been searching for his missing left hand for almost half a century. Enter two bickering lovebirds (read two con artists out to make a few hundred bucks) with a hand to sell. Add an overly-curious, slightly disturbed, hotel clerk with an aversion to gunfire… and the rest is up for grabs in McDonagh’s hilariously volatile, outrageous black comedy. A Behanding in Spokane has been dubbed a hilarious rollercoaster of love, hate, desperation, and hope.
The show is set in a grungy hotel in small-town America, exact location unspecified. As for Spokane, the site of the supposed dismemberment, McDonagh only passed through it once, while asleep on a train. "I always liked the word … that ‘K’ in the middle is really nice," said McDonagh.
A Behanding in Spokane starring Christopher Walken played to sell-out audiences on Broadway in March 2010. McDonagh is best known for a signature style that combines black comedy, danger, and old-fashioned yarn-spinning. His plays include The Pillowman, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, The Lonesome West, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Banshees of Inisheer, and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Born of Irish parents, he was raised in London but spent his formative summers with grandparents in Ireland where most of his plays are set. Some have criticized the plays set in Ireland for what they see as a "mocking, negative portrayal of Irish people and Irish life." But what McDonagh mocks is the stereotypical view of the Irish. One aspect of A Behanding in Spokane likely to stir controversy is that its protagonist has been stated as being "a roaring racist." As one of the two would-be hand merchants is black, the audience can count on plenty of inflammatory dialogue.
When describing his first ever production set in America, McDonagh says the story grew out of a short tale he wrote in his early 20s as "something that needed the scope and size of the US, and that sense of American perseverance and endeavour, albeit in a kind of skewed fashion."
Perhaps with tongue in cheek, McDonagh has cited "guns, explosions, blood" as his recipe for a play. However there is more than that in a McDonagh play – he is a keen observer who stacks the decks against his dark, violent and disaffected characters – who really are horrible human beings – and then gets the audience to recognize their humanity. He really does seem to admire something about them – maybe it’s just their ability to keep going but he does find humanity in extremity.
"Well, we’re all cruel, aren’t we?" McDonagh says. "We’re all extreme in one way or another at times, and that’s what drama, since the Greeks, has dealt with. I hope the overall view isn’t just that, though, or I’ve failed in my writing. There have to be moments when you glimpse something decent, something life-affirming even in the most twisted character. That’s where the real art lies. See, I always suspect characters who are painted as lovely, decent human beings. I would always question where the darkness lies."
For his part, McDonagh says he can’t understand why more people don’t think that way. "It seems so natural to me," he says, adding that although he never writes anything just to shock or horrify, he never censors his imagination. "I’m more worried about boring people than offending them."
Theatre fans were heartened when A Behanding in Spokane was announced, because, just a couple of years ago, McDonagh said he wanted to give up playwriting for a while. He seemed bent on making cinema his primary focus. He won an Oscar for his short subject Six Shooter and made his feature-film debut as writer and director of the highly regarded In Bruges, whose screenplay earned him a second Oscar nomination.
"I started off loving films more than plays originally," he says. "I kind of always wrote the kind of plays people who hate plays might like. So I’ve always tried to keep them cinematic, but it was always gnawing at the back of my head that I wanted to make at least one film. It took awhile to get enough power to not have to listen to anyone else’s opinion in the making of a film. It took 10 years. So I got to that place and made the short film, and that went OK. I wrote a couple of scripts, and this is one that I wanted to make, and a few companies liked it and said go ahead and make it, and I did."
Final word goes to MTC Artistic Director Simon Phillips: "In past years when programming a McDonagh I have felt compelled to warn the squeamish of what may lay ahead, but A Behanding in Spokane, despite its title and queasy marketing image, has scant on-stage horrors. Thus I’m relieved to be able to concentrate my recommendation on the play’s unparalleled theatrical virtues; its wonderfully off-beat and obsessive characters driven to farcical extremes and the churning, simmering theatre of McDonagh’s dialogue – a spicy broth, certainly, but delicious."
Venue: The MTC Theatre, Sumner
Season dates: 5 February to 19 March, 2011
Tickets: $61.10 – $83.15 ($30 Under 30s)
Booking Details: The MTC Theatre Box Office 03 8688 0800 or mtc.com.au