As uncompromisingly savage a play as I’ve seen — and one of the funniest. McDonough’s subject is not simply a divided Ireland, an Ireland in turmoil. This is the occasion, but the real subject seems more broad and general. The characters are all Irish terrorists, full of rage. But they love cats — or, at least, the central character, Padraic (say “Parrig”) has a cat called Wee Thomas, which he has left behind while on an assignment as a member of the IRA (having been rejected by the IRA because he is too mad). While he is gone, it seems that the cat has been killed. When Padraic finds this out he is in a state of rage and despair, and he threatens to kill his own father, Donny, because the father has participated in an attempted cover-up. Meanwhile, Padraic is being pursued by a precocious young terrorist, age 16, Mairead — who also has a much loved cat. At the end, in a fit of rage, Padraic kills Mairead’s cat, and she turns the tables on him by killing him herself. To top it all off, Padraic’s cat Wee Thomas returns, alive and hungry.
This bare outline of the action may not seem very coherent, and I’ve also left out the details of the savagery that includes the blinding, shooting, and dismemberment of a rival splinter group. Through it all, the laughter is almost constant. McDonagh’s eye is sharp and his sense of humor unfailing. What makes the play so brilliant and incisive is that he has discovered an analogy between the idea of hugely disproportionate, vengeful response, in which (for instance) the killing of a cat is cause for multiple murders, and the rhetoric of comedy in which trivial things are multiplied way out of proportion to their intrinsic importance while other things are reduced to unimportance or even absurdity. There is a deep irony operating here: mindless, escalating violence is perceived as a mere concatenation of events, with no moral sense and predictable outcome or individual responsibility. It’s just one damn thing after another. And these characters have no insight at all into their situation. They are stupid people, and grossly insensitive — except where it comes to cats, which manage to elicit an egregious sentimentalism.
The acting is extremely good, especially the two chief roles: Padraic (David Wilmot) and Mairead (Kerry Condon). The latter is especially well cast. She captures a sense of great longing, along with enormous resolve and great strength of will. This character is an extremely competent terrorist-in-the-making, already expert at putting out the eye of a heifer — or a man — with her small carbine at 100 yards. What does the play have to say about Ireland? Padraic has a kind of simple idea that he is fighting for a “free Ireland,” where children can walk safely to school — and cats can roam without being shot to death. But neither he nor Mairead can see any inconsistency in the fact that their single-minded pursuit of an Ireland free from bloodshed finds bloodshed its only means.