Martin McDonagh’s debut play won a Tony award 15 years ago for its director Garry Hynes, when the Royal Court and Druid Theatre production visited New York. It has now acquired the status of a modern classic, though all of McDonagh’s plays are in part a black and bilious satirical assault on the very idea of an Irish classic play.
If you were John Millington Synge, for instance, you might be pulling a few weird faces at the thought of audiences killing themselves with laughter over rhythmic peasant speech about lumpy porridge, or the violent properties of an old black kitchen poker, the phrases self-consciously repeating themselves.
But The Beauty Queen of Leenane is an outstanding play in its own right, too, structured with the precision of a ticking time bomb and detonated with a brutal and overwhelming efficiency. Joe Hill-Gibbins' superb revival, designed by Ultz with plastic sheeting, scrubland and dripping rainwater on the way to your seats, opened at the Young Vic last summer and has returned for a second season after completing a spring tour through Britain and Ireland.
Like many of McDonagh’s characters, the lonely middle-aged spinster, Maureen, and her wicked old manipulative mother, Mag, inhabit a desolate, forgotten corner of the west of Ireland, high on a hill in Connemara, with just a few cows and chickens for company. They are locked in a battle of vindictive self-pity and reproach. These are not the Mountains of Mourne, but the Mountains of Moan.
The dysfunctional sickliness of Irish Catholic family life in the rural outback is McDonagh’s great theme, as it was for Synge and indeed Eugene O’Neill. The only two people we see apart from Mag and Maureen – the so-called beauty queen of Leenane who has one night of carnal fulfilment in the play – are a pair of backward brothers, Pato Dooley and the younger Ray.
The Dooleys have had relatives to stay from America. Pato plans on returning to Boston with them. Maureen has worked as a cleaner in England, but has been subject to nervous attacks. Mag empties her pots of urine in the sink. She’s going nowhere. Nor is Maureen if she has anything to do with it.
The plot hinges on a misdirected missive – the postal system proves as fatal as that of Verona in Romeo and Juliet – a heart-rending miscalculation, an act of violence just like that of Christy “killing” his old da with a lathe in Playboy and a tragic caesura of an ending.
There’s also something nasty with some boiling oil, and there are at least three moments when you find yourself gasping for breath, it’s so shocking. And the cackling glee with which Rosaleen Linehan, one of the truly great Irish actors of our day, discharges Mag’s malevolence is both hilarious and appalling. In the original production, Anna Manahan was more mountainous, and Marie Mullen far more drudge-like and worn out as Maureen.
Derbhle Crotty is a wonderful Maureen, but it’s straining credulity to look at her – she’s highly attractive with a cascade of black hair – and accept the situation. But she’s such a fine actress, and the play is so graphically overstated, you don’t really let this spoil the masochistic pleasures of the night. The two brothers are nicely done by Frank Laverty as the good-hearted, bovine Pato and Johnny Ward as the impish and unreliable Ray.
It’s typical of the deceptive sinuousness of a play that sucks you in and spits you out like very few these days that Ray’s antipathy towards Maureen is rooted in some childish prank and dispute many years ago. And when the radio request comes over the airwaves with an ironic delay in the dedication – it’s Delia Murphy and “The Spinning Wheel” – your eyes do surely fill with tears.