June 01, 2002

Cold Comfort Farm

Filed under: Archive,Interstate,Theatre

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
by Martin McDonagh
Sydney Theatre Company
with The Druid Theatre and Royal Court
Optima Playhouse

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

There are nearly as many cliches about Ireland as there are people willing to perpetuate them. It’s not just the leprechaun pubs and the soft core music – it’s as though the whole place has become a theme park. James Joyce once said Ireland was the mother that ate her farrow. Nowadays, she’d sell them to a circus.

So it was with considerable trepidation that I approached this touring Sydney Theatre/ Druid Company co-production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Because, to be sure, to be sure, from a distance it looked like yet another rollicking monster from the infinite bogs of Irish horseshit.

Maureen Folan is forty, the youngest dutiful daughter caring for her baleful, manipulative old mother in a rundown homestead in Connemara. She meets up again with Pato Dooley, a local man now living a dreary life in London. They have a fling and some time later he writes to her asking her to go with him to the United States. Despite his best efforts to ensure that the letter is delivered, it is intercepted by Mag and Maureen is left bewildered and distraught when Pato marries someone else and leaves for America.

Thus recounted it sounds like a weepy ballad of lost love and emigration, of Cinderella by the turf fire with the witch mother. Or, with the letter trope, one of those horror stories from the Thomas Hardy post office- the message lost or never sent, lost under the mat or thrown in the woodstove by a spiteful rival.

In a sense, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is all of this. But what makes it both engaging and theatrically powerful is that these are ingredients in a blackly ironic old stew which puts the play somewhere between the geriatric nihilism of Beckett and the unsparing social comedy of Father Ted.

These characters are not part of picture book Ireland even though that’s where they live. Ray, Pato’s brother is a Coonamara bogan, a workless kid looking for anything to relieve the boredom. That includes watching the sunny Australian beaches of Home and Away on old Mag’s TV, but it doesn’t include- in a scene of excruciatingly savage farce- waiting around to personally deliver the crucial Pato letter.

Similarly, just when you think think things are turning into something from The Glass Menagerie, Maureen, having spent the night with Pato, defiantly parades him in front of her mother. But not before McDonagh has already given things a grotesquely comic spin with a thrillingly coarse turn involving a kitchen sink, a brimming chamber pot and a porridge spoon.

Irish director Garry Hynes, in charge of the original Druid Theatre production and supported in Australia by STC’s Marion Potts, has given this production the kind of pace and variation that the text demands. The establishing opening scene between mother and daughter, the breakfast scene, Pato’s somewhat cheesy letter writing soliliquy, and the terrible encounter between Maureen and Mag, complete with hot oil and kitchen poker- is very well managed narrative.

And the performers are a match for the task. Maggie Kirkpatrick is alarmingly disagreeable as Mag -even her name sounds like a dustbin case from Endgame. She is ever demanding- sick enough for Complan, well enough to keep all possibility of change on a tight rein. And, as Maureen, Tracy Mann is disarmingly cheerful and long-suffering. It is a convincing portrait of a lively young woman trapped in the aspic of duty. All the more effective, then, when we are left to wonder about episodes in her past and who is really boiling the oil in her relationship with her mother.

As Pato, Greg Saunders has the task of the Gentleman Caller which he handles best when he has some comic opportunities to offset the potential mawkishness of the role. Opportunities afforded in abundance for Darren Weller in his frenetically lethargic study of Ray, slouching in front of the TV, bemoaning his missing swingball, and indifferent to the nineteenth century melodrama he is not only part of, but also precipitating.

Francis O’Connor’s scungy cottage set, complete with kitchen sink and grotty stove, has a cutaway wall affording a glimpse of the gloomy weather of the larger world. This is repeated in Ben Ormerod’s subdues lighting, except for the needlessly sentimental glow over Pato and his letter.

With Garry Hynes’ production it is not hard to see why The Beauty Queen of Leenane has enjoyed such success in London and New York. It is an absorbing thriller and a narrative with more than its share of tricks and turns. But there is a purposeful irony in Martin McDonagh’s text , a willingness to play with conventions, to extrude them and turn them on their head. He hasn’t forgotten, as many contemporary Irish writers have, the keen satiric gaze of John Millington Synge or the boisterous postmodern carnival of Father Ted.

The Adelaide Review, June 2002.

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