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Daniel Radcliffe's 'Crippled' Role Reaches Out To The Remote

Daniel Radcliffe (right) plays Billy, in a scene with Pat Shortt as Johnnypateenmike, in the Broadway production of Martin McDonagh's <em>The Cripple of Inishmaan</em>.
Johan Persson
Michael Grandage Company
Daniel Radcliffe (right) plays Billy, in a scene with Pat Shortt as Johnnypateenmike, in the Broadway production of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan.

Even before he finished his eight-film run as Harry Potter, actor Daniel Radcliffe spent a considerable time devoted to the stage, both in London and New York. He appeared on Broadway in Equus and spent a year playing J. Pierrepont Finch, the lead role in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

On Sunday night, the 24-year-old actor opens at Broadway's Cort Theatre in a production of Martin McDonagh's dark Irish comedy, The Cripple of Inishmaan.

When Daniel Radcliffe makes his first appearance, it's something of a shock; his left arm is lifeless, his left leg is locked straight, his body twists as he shuffles uncomfortably across the stage. Radcliffe is the title character in The Cripple of Inishmaan: Billy Claven, an orphaned 17-year-old boy whose parents drowned in a mysterious boating accident and who dreams both of love and of a better life.

"I responded to the character of Billy," Radcliffe says, "just because he is such a beaten, battered-down, abused character, who retains such a sense of dignity and integrity and strength and actually still retains his compassion for other people, which is pretty remarkable, given the way he's treated."

The play takes place on a tiny island off the west coast of Ireland in 1934, where the villagers live a harsh, impoverished existence. Several of the characters decide to leave, in hopes of appearing in a movie that's being filmed nearby. Playwright McDonagh has created a world that is both cruel and sympathetic, according to director Michael Grandage.

Daniel Radcliffe's character Billy is a crippled 17-year-old boy whose parents drowned in a mysterious boating accident.
Johan Persson / Michael Grandage Company
Michael Grandage Company
Daniel Radcliffe's character Billy is a crippled 17-year-old boy whose parents drowned in a mysterious boating accident.

"What's lovely about the play is that it offers an insight into a very small community," Grandage says. "We, the audience, sit and observe something from outside; watching a past life, a past world, this little remote island off Ireland from the early 1930s and the people that inhabit it and their need, in some cases, to get away from it."

The characters in McDonagh's comedy can almost seem like they come from a parody of classic Irish theater, but actress Sarah Greene, who hails from Cork and plays Billy's love interest, Helen, says these are not caricatures.

"The mad thing is that there are still characters like this, living on the Aran Islands, so these are real people," she says. "And what's funny watching it is they don't seem like real people, because they're so bizarre! They are very, very strange human beings."

McDonagh uses a clever device to get their dialect across to audiences: line repetition. "He's got a very particularly poetic voice, actually, and he's got a musical voice, I think," Grandage says.

"What's fascinating about that is he knows that the play's going to open with an accent that is probably, for most people watching it, different to the way that they speak," he says. "He gives us, therefore, the first line in duplicate, so just in case we miss it in the very first voice that gets heard, as our ear starts to adjust, the second voice gives it to us again, in a different form.

"So by the time we've heard two voices say it, while the voice might need an adjustment to our ear, we at least are following it," Grandage says. "It's a rather brilliant device that he does quite a lot and consistently, right the way through the play."

Accessibility is important for Grandage. When he founded his company last year, he asked name actors, like Radcliffe, if they'd be interested in not just acting, but training young directors and designers, and performing free for schools from disadvantaged areas in and around London. Throughout their five-play season, the company made 100,000 tickets available at a lower cost to help young people see the work.

On Broadway, The Cripple of Inishmaan is making a block of 10,000 tickets available at $27 for the length of the four-month run, in the same spirit. For the actors in the company, "it makes a difference to the way they approach the work," Grandage says. "It's not just about playing a role."

Grandage sent Radcliffe five plays, and the actor says the role of Billy Claven in The Cripple of Inishmaan was the obvious choice. While Radcliffe continues to have an active film career, he's also committed to the stage.

"I'd definitely like to come back and keep doing theater for hopefully the rest of my career," he says. "It's something that I feel like every time I come away from it, I come away from it a better actor."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.