The Leenane Trilogy at the Royal Court (Duke of York Theatre)
Beauty Queen of Leenane, the first play of Martin McDonagh's trilogy, opens, it is raining. While the rain itself, beautifully rendered, may lift from this isolated corner of Ireland, the dark and haunting atmosphere it leaves behind never does. Make no mistake, these are dark and gloomy plays. But they are also very good.
All three plays take place during a short period amongst the different residents of Leenane, a small and seemingly doomed town.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane begins with the sad life of 40-something Maureen Folan ( Marie Mullen) who is lumbered with the care of her overbearing and manipulative 70-something mother Mag ( Anna Manahan). Maureen has one last chance for love and a real life which Mag is hell-bent on denying her.
A Skull in Connemara picks up the story of neighbour Mick Dowd ( Mick Lally) who may or may not have murdered his wife seven years ago. During his autumnal task of clearing out bones from the town graveyard to make way for new burials, Mick must confront the remains of his own wife and the accusations that still linger.
The final, and by far the funniest play,
The Lonesome West centres around two brothers intent on playing out the legacy of Cain and Abel. The well-meaning Father Welsh ‘or is it Walsh? ( David Ganley) wants to save them, but his inclination for drink and his multiple ‘crises of faith weaken his efforts.
The acting by the entire troop is heartfelt - and spot on for timing. Manahan is wheezingly wonderful as Mag in the first as well as busybody neighbour Maryjohnny in the second. And Mullen portrays the confused and vulnerable Maureen of
Beauty Queen with great sympathy. We can see why she is driven to such violence in the end. A special commendation must go to Brian F. O byrne who plays a different character in all three plays. The first two do not display his talents to full effect, but his final role in The Lonesome West as the miserly brother Valene is inspired.
These talented actors are empowered by some very fine writing. During intervals, I found myself constantly referring to the Methuen script volumes to check at the exact wording of certain lines. There are some excellent ones. And it is lovely to see how the characters and jokes interlink from one play to the next.
But despite the smattering of humour, it must be said that these plays cross all barriers of gloom. Every single one revolves around murder, attempted murder and suicide. Does nothing else take place in the backwaters of Ireland? We must share Father Wesh's despair in the final play. How is it possible that in his small congregation he should be harbouring three unconvicted murderers? Besides stretching believability, the violence also stretched the realms of tolerance - blood and smashed skulls lose their impact when overdone. This is especially true if you re one of the brave who attempt to see all three plays back to back (as they run each Saturday). By the end of the day, murder fatigue has well and truly set in.
The Leenane Trilogy certainly confirms Martin McDonagh (a mere 26 years old) as a powerful voice in UK theatre. Already he has won the 1996 Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright and 1996 George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright for the Beauty Queen of Leenane. Doubtless, there will be more awards and, hopefully, many more plays to come from McDonagh. The trilogy plays in repertory at the Royal Court Downstairs until 13 September.
Terri Paddock, August 1997