Dripping Blood in the Snow

Martin McDonagh's debut film, and perhaps not his last, is
Martin McDonagh's debut film, and perhaps not his last, is "In Bruges." (By Bryan Bedder -- Getty Images)
  Enlarge Photo    
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008

PARK CITY, Utah -- They really rolled out the red carpet for Martin McDonagh, the Anglo-Irish playwright with the punk sensibilities, the former bad boy of the London theater who once got in a drunken spat with Sean Connery because McDonagh, blotto on vodka, decided not to stand when they drank to the queen.

McDonagh is here in snow country because his first film, "In Bruges," starring Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on opening night. The movie, about two Mutt-and-Jeff hit men stranded in the medieval Flemish tourist town of Bruges, is very McDonagh, meaning it is bloody violent and bloody funny. McDonagh wrote and directed. Festival founder Robert Redford introduced him.

"I saw him afterward and he gave me a big hug," says McDonagh, impressed. We warn him that Redford is a monster. "Realllly?" McDonagh's face brightens in pleasure. He seems almost disappointed when we say no, just kidding, they say Redford is a prince.

"Ah, well," McDonagh says. "Too bad."

McDonagh is lean, handsome, with gaps in his whitened teeth, his hair prematurely gray at age 37. He is best known as the first playwright since Shakespeare to have four plays running simultaneously in London's West End theater district. He was 27 then. He has won numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic.

His plays, beginning with "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and continuing through "The Pillowman," have all been hits, known for their combative style -- about losers and miscreants, speaking a poetry of slang and expletives, experiencing crazy acts of depravity. A son murders his father for making fun of his hair. A daughter holds her mother's hand over a hot stove. A boy's toes are cut off.

McDonagh's mother and father were Irish expatriates living in Irish prole London. Dad was a construction worker, Mum a house cleaner. They would take their boys, Martin and his older brother John, who became a screenwriter, back to Connemara and the rural west of Ireland during their holidays from Catholic school. For his muse, McDonagh says he looked not so much to Harold Pinter or David Mamet, but to the Pogues and the Clash, and the films of Quentin Tarantino and the young Martin Scorsese.

One remarkable fact about McDonagh is that all six of his plays were written in a fevered burst (he heard the voices of his characters) in 1994, when he was 24 years old and living on the dole. "I had worked part-time in the civil service," he recalls. "Kafkaesque and rather bleak. Nice people, though."

And what happened?

"Unemployment, having the house to myself and being bored sparked the furious playwriting over the 10 months or so," he says. "It was also fear of poverty, fear of having a boss, fear of doing nothing with your life, that sparked the speed of it." He was trying to find, too, a new way forward. "I was angry about the way theater was in England. It seemed a very upper-class, dull art form. I always had a bad time in going to plays. Wanted to subvert that, come at it with a punk rock attitude." He recalls seeing, as a teen, Al Pacino in Mamet's play "American Buffalo."

"I didn't know anything about Mamet at that point," he says. " I just wanted to see a film star onstage. Pacino was brilliant. The play was astonishingly good, too. Before that, I didn't realize you could have working-class, dirty, rough, expletive plays. That spurred me on. You could say exactly what you want. You don't have to have people drinking tea."

And characters named Roger.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company