Theatre critics are raving about the hot new UK playwright, Martin McDonagh and his Tony-winning play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. They compare him to Hollywood’s Quentin Tarantino to a degree tha raises suspicion and arouses a violent need to reject their claims outright. Live theatre and cinema are worlds apart, the effects, the impact, mutually exclusive. Or so I thought, until I saw McDonagh’s play.
A fan of fringe theatre, black comedy and other off-beat entertainment, I am habitually bored by mainstream theatre, in spite of critical acclaim. (Riverdance is a case in point.) So I prepared for two hours of tedium trying to achieve critical objectivity.
And for the first while, The Beauty Queen did not disappoint. It was opening night. The cast was shy, their movements were awkward, and their Irish accents kept unravelling. And that, thought I with a satisfied meow, is simply not Tarantino, a director known for sucking his audience into a vortex of fast-lane violence and angst-driven thugs from exciting establishing shot to unnerving finish.
The Beauty Queen builds almost too slowly, more like a Hitchcock thriller, and with as many twists and turns, starting with the boring daily lives of two very boring women. As the play develops, however, we learn that mother and daughter have been weaving a sinister web. The double-binds and petty betrayals are of Hitchcockian proportion and lead inexorably to a terrible, shocking end. It has all the elements of Psycho. Think bare light bulbs, Norman Bates and mother-possession, with a few minor differences: the bare bulb is not restricted to the basement — these women live in squalor, Bates is a broad, and mother is still alive and full of piss, which she dumps down the sink. Disgusting? Very.
Joan Orenstein is almost too convincing at times in her role as 70-year old Mag Folan, a lazy old bitch of a mother hell-bent on making a life-time slave of her estranged 40-something daughter, Maureen, played to perfection by Fiona Reid. Maureen resents her, of course, but their circumstances in rural Ireland leave her no alternative but to look after her abusive mother and their paltry farm, until Pato Dooley (Oliver Becker) offers her a tiny window of opportunity. And that’s when the real friction begins. Mag steps up her scheming while Maureen flaunts her escape plans. Mom wins (sort of) with the unwitting help of Pato’s younger brother, Ray, a frenetic lad whose restless impatience with the old biddy most resembles a Tarantino character. Scene-stealing Canadian actor Matthew Edison brings to the stage the vibrance and humour of a Pulp Fiction punk. He tosses about, rolls off his chair and pretty much crawls up the walls with all the insolence of youth, chanting “feck” as though it were some demented Irish mantra, until he finally leaves Pato’s letter to Maureen with Mag to do with as she pleases, which se does, apparently sealing her daughter’s fate…and her own. But that’s not all. The surprising twist at the end is worthy of Hitchcock and must remain a mystery “for fear of spoiling the effect for our readers” (as the great Master of Suspense himself might’ve said in a prologue to the play).
McDonagh’s own fate was sealed when both play and director won Tony awards for the 1997-1998 season. The Beauty Queen won the award for Outstanding Broadway Play, and Ms. Hynes, the Lucille Lortel award for Outstanding Direction, making her the first woman director to win a Tony. “Naturally I was thrilled, but it seemed extraordinary to me that a woman hadn’t won, particularly given the contribution made to the American theatre this century by women directors, founders of the great regional theatres, and others who were very influential,” Hynes told me in a brief interview at the Bluma Appel Theatre shortly before opening night. She was in Toronto overseeing Druid’s joint production with the Canadian Stage Theatre Company.
After touring Ireland with The Beauty Queen, Ms. Hynes and the Druid Theatre Company teamed up with Royal Court for a co-production and moved to the Atlantic Theatre in New York, where McDonagh’s play became a highly-acclaimed sellout, receiving unprecedented reviews from the American Press. “Sometimes you don’t even know what you’ve been craving until the real thing comes along,” raved New York Times critic Ben Brantly, and The DAily News called it “a new Playboy of the Western World.” Then on April 23 of the same year, McDonagh’s play went to The Walter Kerr theatre for its award-winning Broadway debut.
Such tremendous acclaim for all involved — including the cast, who won the 1998 Theatre World award for Outstanding Ensemble — makes one wonder what it was about McDonagh’s script that initially caught Ms. Hynes’ attention. “You read plays, and if they’re good and exciting, you tend to want to do them. The same process happened with Martin. It was unusual in the sense that he had extraordinary sophistication for (what I didn’t know then, but now know was) a first-time writer, and maturity for a young writer. He told a story, he wrote wonderful dialogue, and he’s very funny. I can’t think of a much better reason.”
McDonagh wrote the first installment of his Leenane trilogy in a basement flat in only eight days, in London, England, where he grew up. Although the 28-year-old playwright is not from Ireland, his father’s from Connemara, where most of his work is set. Nor does he have a degree in drama. He is in fact a high school drop-out who spent several years watching tellie on the dole, and he’s a self-confessed pop-cult pundit to boot. Before Ms. Hynes and Druid took him under wing, he had 22 radio plays rejected. He has also confessed to being influenced by Tarantino, but aside from his character Ray, there’s more Psycho than Pulp Fiction in this playwright’s philosophy. I suspect that a steady diet of BBC prime-time during his formative writing career must have embedded Hitchcock deeply in his subconscious mind, or better yet, the old master has come back to take possession of the young McDonagh and we’re in for a decade of award-winning suspense theatre. Notorious, you say? Strictly for the Birds? This fringe junkie can’t wait.
Celtic Curmudgeon Arts & Entertainment Review, 1999