Martin McDonagh at his Beginnings and Today: The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Druid at BAM and Hangmen Projected.
Set design by Francis O’Connor
Lighting design by James F. Ingalls
Sound design by Greg Clarke
Ray Dooley – Aaron Monaghan
Mag Folan – Marie Mullen
Pato Dooley – Marty Rea
Maureen Folan – Aisling O’Sullivan
I only managed to get to The Beauty Queen of Leenane on its very last day at BAM, a Sunday matinee—in fact Super Bowl Sunday. This momentous annual event seemed to have little effect on McDonagh fans, and BAM’s Harvey Theater was nearly full. The audience was of more than the usual interest, because, as the play took its course, many members of the audience seemed to know what was going to happen in advance. Only the special decorum of legitimate theater seemed to prevent some of them from calling out the lines ahead of the actors, as was the practice of denizens of the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square at the Study Period screenings of Casablanca. These people had seen the show at the BAM run at least once before, and in many cases, I’m sure, back in the late 1990s, when it catapulted its author Martin McDonagh to fame and fortune. On the other hand, the audience was alive to the affecting events in the story, gasping or ahhing at unpleasant turns of events, as they unfolded.
Judging by the mood and manner of the audience, one might call it a “beloved” play, which is suprising, because it depicts, rather, revels in, the lowest level of human behavior, demonstrating incontrovertibly that living close to the land without education or curiosity protects no one from his or her very worst instincts. In McDonagh’s world there is no such thing an innocence. He drives it home by enchanting us to believe in it, or something like it, for a while, only to let it dissolve in human frailty or aggression. Are the actions we might actually carry out what matters, or the feelings and thoughts that cause them? I won’t say “motivate.”
Without taking the step of calling this a “great play,” I’ll say that it does what a “great play” should. It brings us into the midst of the situation and reveals things about ourselves. I imagine others may have had responses different from my own, but I’ll wager that sympathy for Maureen bordered on the passionate, equalled by detestation of Mag, her spoiled, manipulative mother. I don’t think I’m the only one who felt she got her just deserts. McDonagh creates a powerful identification with Maureen, which really lasts until the end. The shocking realization of the final scene doesn’t really displace us from it. He makes us yearn for Maureen to break loose from her needy mother and be happy. The reality comes to us more subtly than a shock, rather in the sidling, gradual way tragedy approaches us in real life—not at all like the Furies in the Choephoroi.
A brief summary of the story for the few interested people who don’t know it already. The play begins with Mag Folan seemingly permanently settled in her easy chair in front of the telly in the rather filthy kitchen of her run-down, but by no means ancient cottage. A tall, gangly woman enters. She begins to attend to Mag’s various needs. Her fiercely resentful behavior make it clear that she must be Mag’s grown-up daughter, and she shares the hovel with her mother. She does not dress like a woman, and her body language is by no means feminine. Her sister has married and broken away from the mother’s empire. She sees her as little as possible. Ray Dooley a fellow townsman of picturesquely limited intellect comes by to gossip and extend an invitation to a going-away party. Members of the Dooley clan who have emigrated to Boston have been back for a visit, and now they are returning. Maureen goes to the party, having bought a short black dress for the occasion. She makes herself pretty and comes back home with Ray’s attractive brother, Pato, who has come to visit from London, where he works in construction. After a session at the kitchen table, Maureen takes Pato up to her room. Maureen flaunts her sexual escapade to her mother. She seems to have won the round, but Mags mentions that Maureen had been committed to a mental institution in the past. Pato treats this with affectionate, loyal nonchalance. Maureen flares up at him in an odd, unexpected way, but he takes it in his stride. On that note he leaves. Act II begins with Pato drafting an awkward letter to Maureen, inviting her to come to Boston with him, since his relations have found him a job there. He knows Mags well enough to insist that Ray deliver the letter by hand to Maureen and to no one else. Ray arrives with the letter. Maureen seems to have the fatal flaw of being absent for much of the time. Ray is left alone with Mags, his feeble patience and ability to pass the time are exhausted, and the inevitable happens: Mags consigns the amorous missive to the flames. This is not the end of the affair. You will find hope for Maureen, but the rest would be a spoiler—not that knowing the ending has put off any of the many repeat visitors.
There’s a larger dimension here, beyond the household bitterness of the Folans, as one might expect from the heir of O’Casey and Joyce. Mags is Ireland. Whether the Irishman lives in London, as McDonagh has done since childhood, or Boston, one cannot, it seems, break the tie to the old passive, ignorant, self-serving ways. This play and McDonagh’s career belong to the mid- to late-1990s when the brilliant Garry Hynes, who directed this and the premiere production, discovered the Beauty Queen in a pile of submissions. Since before that time, Ireland, partly, perhaps largely due to EU membership, has developed into a more dynamic sort of country. James Joyce could not succeed in breaking free of provincial, undeveloped, oppressed Ireland, but older contemporaries of McDonagh, like John Banville, are sophisticated, cosmopolitan artists…and Mr. Banville resides in Dublin. I shall leave it to people with more direct national connections to Ireland to judge whether Martin McDonagh is addressing an urgent personal issue—it seems so to me—or is spinning an Irish literary topos. NB. He has lately been writing about Americans and Englishmen.
One of a playwright’s primary tasks is to give his actors strong material for their own creative work. The miracle of McDonagh’s talent is that he fuels truly great performances. He texts become something else in the mouths and limbs of actors. The distortions of Irish English, as delivered by Marie Mullen’s Protean voice—often hard to listen to, like chalk on a blackboard, Aisling O’Sullivan’s own colorful inflections, not to mention her inexhaustible imagination in the deployment of her long body, Aaron Monaghan’s doltish grotesqueries, and Marty Rea’s handsome baritone, all contributed to a performance which went beyond the limits of theatrical excellence. The made the play into something of an opera, with every detail—and I mean domestic details, like taking a comestible off a kitchen shelf or tending the stove—rising to a high expressive level. One could only savor every little thing one saw or heard. Ms. Hynes re-creation of the premiere production, with this extraordinary cast (Marie Mullen played Maureen back then.) is so subtle and running with nuance that a review can’t do it justice.
The adulation of the faithful at this last performance at BAM was well-deserved.
Just last week I made the trek from North Adams to Peterborough, New Hampshire, to see a projection via National Theatre Live of the Royal Court production of McDonagh’s most recent play, Hangmen, at the magical Peterborough Playhouse, the quintessence of New England summer stock, with its barn-like auditorium. He said he planned to abandon the stage in favor of film, that he couldn’t create the edginess he wanted on stage. There’s a lot to ponder there: has the age of edginess passed? I wouldn’t call Hangmen edgy—nasty for sure, but warm-hearted, funny, and ambiguous, in such a way as to fascinate. It’s quite a rich little universe McDonagh created among these Northern Englishmen. The regional prejudices abound in this. The Southerner about to die sneers at his Northern executioners, and the Northerners, when finding a Southerner amidst them, are equally contemptuous—Babycham, really! The sociology of the British executioner is curious. It seems most of the Crown’s hangmen came from the north, Yorkshire in particular. They were working class men, who, for quite modest compensation, could rise to the middle classes and even fame. They wore a suit, white shirt, and tie to perform their duties, and both the prominent hangmen in the play left their humble primary occupations to own pubs. Their notoriety attracted a clientele.
McDonagh had good fun playing with history and mixing it up. The protagonist, Harry Wade, bears the name of two prominent hangmen. Albert Pierrepoint, the greatest of British hangmen, makes a appearance bearing his own name of course, but McDonagh makes him the voice of morality, transferring the historical Pierrepoint’s impropriety with the press to the inferior Wade.
Having read the play before seeing it, I’ll say that there is much for the actor to provide in order to fill in all the necessary colors, but David Morrissey as Harry, the second best, John Hodgkinson as Pierrepoint a tour de force by Johnny Flynn as Mooney, and—above all—Sally Rogers as Harry’s unfortunate wife, Alice, not to mention all the others in the splendid cast, were more than equal to bringing the play to life under Matthew Dunster’s direction. The most moving and impressive aspect of the play in this production was the deterioration of Alice’s character under additions of revelation and conflict and shots of gin. I’ll never forget Sally Rogers’ performance.