BMW Review: Crowning Grotesques in The Beauty Queen of Leenane
In 1996 Ireland's Druid Theatre Company took a chance on an unsolicited script by an unknown playwright named Martin McDonagh when they premiered his debut work The Beauty Queen of Leenane. The exhilarating production wound its way from Galway to Broadway and garnered three Tony Awards for acting and - for the first time in history - a Tony Award for a female director. To mark the 20th anniversary, Druid is restaging the play that catapulted them and its author to international acclaim.
Although his debut, The Beauty Queen of Leenane reads like McDonagh's credo: an irreverent script - daubed in coal-black humour and franked with casual violence - delivered in skewed Hiberno-English and framed by a grossly exaggerated west of Ireland backdrop populated by infantile characters. ("Aren't we all adults now?," asks one, in a tone that suggests he doesn't even believe himself.)
Born in London to Irish parents, McDonagh spent his childhood summers in Connemara - an especially remote part of Ireland famously described as "one of the last pools of darkness in Europe" - and it provides the setting for The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
The play orbits around the poisonous relationship between the brittle, erratic Maureen and her demanding, doughty mother Mag. When Mag selfishly intervenes in 40-year-old Maureen's glimpse of a loving relationship, the plot heaves towards a grisly finale.
Francis O'Connor's broad set design of a sparse, ochre-walled cottage, adorned with an unhung mirror and a TV propped up by a stack of newspapers, evokes the characters' sense of abandonment.
Marie Mullen, who won a Tony in the original production for her role as Maureen, now assumes the part of Mag. In an arresting performance, Mullen captures the duality of her character by both eliciting our sympathy while snapshotting Mag's forensic manipulation.
Delivering her lines in a piercing, high-pitch tone, Mullen invests Mag with a gleeful self-knowing: effortlessly aware of how to needle her daughter and, when humiliated by her, exploding with a lacerating vindictiveness.
While Maureen's loneliness and despair is etched into Aisling O'Sullivan's plodding walk and bowed, submissive head, the actor never seems to fully inhabit the role. Maureen's would-be suitor Pato is charismatically portrayed by Marty Rea. In a mannered performance, Aaron Monaghan persuasively essays the "continually bored" Ray.
Reprising her role as director, Garry Hynes orchestrates and sustains a menacing atmosphere. Ratcheting up the tension like stretched piano wire, she moves the actors with a balletic precision and, with an agile touch, typically shifts the production through its emotional gears. In a central scene between Pato and Maureen, however, the director opts for an excessively unhurried pace that punctures the pacing.
Frequently, Hynes zeroes in on a subtle gesture that vividly communicates a character's essence: for example, after Pato, a man unfamiliar with the language of intimacy, speaks the words of an emotional letter to Maureen, his head drops and he takes a deep breath.
Perhaps what's most striking about this production is the way it spotlights the electricity of McDonagh's writing: the assuredness of his stagecraft, the bass-drum tight plotting, and the deftness of his blend of the grotesque and the tender.
In the final scene, one character speaks the play's funniest lines while another breaks down. It's a refrain in the playwright's work best summed up by Slippy Helen in The Cripple of Inishmaan when she tells the titular character "I shouldn't laugh at you...but I will."
Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey
The Beauty Queen of Leenane tours Cork, Limerick, and Dublin in September/October before touring Los Angeles (November-December), Boston (February 2017), Michigan (March), and Hong Kong (March). See druid.ie.