This back-to-back trilogy, starring Noni Hazlehurst, recaptures Martin McDonagh’s childhood filled with humour, darkness and violence
Martin McDonagh is often mentioned in the same breath as Quentin Tarantino, and indeed the poster for his Connemara trilogy invokes the filmmaker directly. I guess it’s the deliberately uncomfortable mix of violence and humour, the deadpan nihilism, which brings the cult director to mind. Of course, it could just be the body count.
McDonagh has a few films of his own under his belt now, but his career began with The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Set in the county in which his father was born, his first play drew heavily on the cultural and linguistic nuances of Connemara; bleak and insular, full of petty and long-standing grievance, made up of people struggling to live with themselves and each other.
The success of this play led rapidly to two more: Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West. The plays stand on their own but have a number of literal and thematic links. Characters mentioned in one play appear in another, issues dealt with in one find echoes in the others. Seen in succession, an entire worldview emerges, bracing and unforgettable.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane opens with Mag Folan [Noni Hazlehurst] already propped and waiting in her shabby armchair for her daughter Maureen [Michala Banas] to come home and tend on her equally shabby needs. A hateful co-dependence seeps from them both, and it takes the audience a long time to decode the specific power dynamics at play in this embittered mother/daughter relationship. Of course, just when we think we have a handle on it, the dynamics shift violently under us, to shocking effect.
Maureen manages to hook up with neighbour Pato Dooley [Linc Hasler], and a tentative romance develops, despite Mag’s best efforts to undermine and destroy it. Pato’s younger brother Ray [Dylan Watson] doesn’t help much either, his indifference to passing on messages proving disastrous. The possibility of escape lies at the heart of Maureen and Pato’s affair, but it seems clear from the savage tone of the play that escape is unlikely. It’s a theme the plays return to again and again.
For all its bleak drollery, Beauty Queen is incredibly funny. The lived-in details of inedible biscuits and awful instant soups, inappropriate use of chamber pots, decades-old grievances over stolen tennis balls, all add credible texture to the play. They also stand in painful relief to the unspeakable violence to come.
The performances are among the best you can see on a Melbourne stage. Watson’s bursts of rage, Hasler’s lovely but ineffective gentility, Banas’s stretched and haggard attempts at normalcy, are all beautifully and economically conveyed. But it is Hazlehurst who dazzles. Oscillating between pathetic pleading and naked malice, she positively radiates pathological resentment and need. A manipulative and poisonous mater horribilis, she nonetheless manages to elicit the audience’s sympathy and care.
Declan Eames’s direction is perfectly pitched, deftly switching from good-natured naturalism to palpable horror and back again. The production is a master class in tone and rhythm, entirely unfaultable.
Skull in Connemara feels like a massive letdown after the heights of Beauty Queen. By far McDonagh’s weakest sibling, the play needs a firmer hand than it receives here. David Cameron’s direction simply highlights its flaws where it needed to mask them, and introduces some of its own.
Mick Dowd [Christopher Bunworth] is a gravedigger and curmudgeon, drinking to wipe the memory of a tragic car accident that killed his wife years earlier. His drinking buddy is Mary Johnny Rafferty [Marg Downey], a knowing and supportive presence who finds her loyalties tested when her grandson Thomas [Pete Reid], a local cop, accuses Mick of his wife’s murder. Thomas’s younger brother Mairtin [Tom Barton] is helping Mick exhume bodies, and proves something of a sidekick, until the simmering threat of violence finally breaks through the surface.
Bunworth makes a convincing lead, sullen and dangerous, and Downey brings a lovely warmth and grit to Mary. Her ridiculous wig is unfortunately reminiscent of Fast Forward, and undercuts the naturalism. But more problematic are the performances of Reid and Barton. Reid overplays the bumbling copper, and Barton is a complete misfire as the irritating and petty Mairtin, leaping and lurching about the stage in a carnival parody of a human being.
Thankfully, the final play in the trilogy is another triumph, and a perfect lesson in the tonal control that undoes the second. The Lonesome West is the story of two brothers, Valene [Mark Diaco] and Coleman [James O’Connell] who live together in mutual bitterness and resentment, quite happily as it turns out. The local priest Father Welsh [Dean Cartmel] is trying his best to heal their relationship, but is hampered by his own alcoholism and religious doubt as much as the boys reeking pathology.
When one of the characters from the previous plays commits suicide, Father Welsh suffers a crisis of faith, and makes one last attempt to reunite the boys and get them to forgive each other. They are to list all the cruel acts they have inflicted on each other, and forgive them one by one. Needless to say, this doesn’t go well.
For a play about lifetime resentment and sociopathic violence, The Lonesome West is a total crack-up. The sibling rivalry at the heart of the play is completely credible and funny, despite being taken to operatic extremes, and the tortured humanism of Father Welsh and local schoolgirl Girleen [Laura Maitland] add poignancy and hope.
The performances are stunning. Diaco is hilarious as Valene, the tightwad collector of religious paraphernalia, perfectly at home in his character’s rapid shifts from maudlin sentimentality to grinning viciousness. O’Connell is magnificent as the more worrying Coleman, a psychopath in trackies, forever on the verge of murderous rage. Cartmel is brilliant as the ineffective priest and Maitland is heartbreaking as the desperate Girleen.
John Banas’s direction of this outrageous, flinty play is superb, keeping perfect rein on the lightning-quick changes of tone, pacing the scenes with a conductor’s precision. It’s another unfaultable and virtuosic night in the theatre.
The design of all three plays [Casey-Scott Corless] is fantastic, gritty and lived in, rearranged for each play but retaining uniformity of expression. Lighting [Kris Chainey] is intricate and effective, and the sound [Nick McCorriston] is darkly evocative.
The Kin Collective have pulled off something genuinely exciting by staging McDonagh’s first three plays back to back. The dirt and drudgery of life in Connemara is constantly enlivened by the wit and gumption of these vibrant people. Lifelong grievance, offhand bitterness and cruelty, and the impossibility of escape run like veins through the works, peppered throughout with a droll hilarity. It’s magnificent, and for anyone seriously interested in theatre, not to be missed.