The Beauty Queen of Leenane was the first in McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy, which also comprised A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West. His other plays include The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman, and premiered this year on Broadway with Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, A Behanding in Spokane. McDonagh won an Oscar for his screen writing and directing debut, the short film Six Shooter, which he followed with In Bruges, starring Ralph Fiennes and Colin Farrell.
Susan Lynch’s credits include: on stage, The Night Season, O Go My Man, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and, most recently at the Old Vic, the revival of Dancing at Lughnasa; and on screen Elizabeth: the Golden Age, Enduring Love, From Hell, Beautiful Creatures, The Unloved and The Secret Diary of Anne Lister.
Martin McDonagh is one of the few playwrights that young people in Ireland have actually heard of. My niece and nephew, who are studying film now, they’re always asking me have I read or seen any of Martin McDonagh’s plays. There are a lot of Irish playwrights they just don’t know about, but him they know, mainly from In Bruges because it’s such a big film. In fact, the only McDonagh play I’ve seen was The Lieutenant of Inishmore when it was in the West End, and I absolutely loved it. But I’d never read any of his plays before I was sent this one. It’s so weird. I don’t know how I missed the first production because it’s such an extraordinary play, but somehow I did.
In a way, I’m glad. It’s like when I did Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa last year. I hadn’t seen the original production of that either, even though it was really famous. That’s quite nice because it means you can come as a sort of blank interpreter. You’re not like, “well, I think it should be like this because when I saw the other production they did it like this”. A fresh take can only be helpful for a revival.
It’s really hard for me to talk about The Beauty Queen of Leenane because I’m worried I’m going to give too much away! It’s about a mother and her daughter, who live in a very remote place in the west of Ireland called Leenane in Galway, where they’ve been pretty much on their own together for the past 20 years. My character, Maureen, is the daughter. It’s basically about this 40-year-old woman’s struggle to have a life beyond looking after her very demanding mother. You find out a lot more about the daughter, why she hides herself away, why she has such low self-esteem, why she puts up with her mother. At the beginning, you think, “why doesn’t she just leave?” Actually, she did leave 15 years before, but then the play explains that.
The main thing I think of with this story is freedom. You know, your mental freedom, your freedom from another human being. And the lack of freedom, the sense of being trapped and what that can do to your mind. Even before the play starts, that’s a big part of the journey for Maureen. She’s always been trapped, even when she left her mother and went to work in England, she was still trapped. For me, it’s more about that mental rather than physical entrapment. And also the power of love.
The play is ruthless in charting the relationships in it, and beneath that, this extraordinary sense of isolation and loneliness, but at the same time, it’s just so funny and so truthful. It also shows a very dark side to the west of Ireland - which I’m sure the people in the west of Ireland don’t like at all! But I think McDonagh set these plays there simply because of its remoteness.
Mag, my onstage mother, is played by Rosaleen Linehan. I’ve never worked with her before, but her reputation comes before her. She’s a really, really well-known actress in Ireland. And she’s adorable, just the loveliest woman – very different from Mag! She’s very earthy and obviously a beautiful mother in real life, so it’s hilarious to see her transformation into this almost child-like and sometimes incredibly vicious parent.
We also have two other great actors, David Ganly who plays Pato and Terence Keeley who plays Ray, and a fantastic director in Joe Hill-Gibbins. And it would seem unfair not to mention as well our amazing designer Ultz and our fantastic stage management headed by Holly and our flawless sound and lighting team. It’s a blessed company. We’re very happy.
I’d like to think that this production might herald revivals of the next two plays in the Leenane trilogy, A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West. I hope so. McDonagh’s writing is just so good. And also it’s really entertaining, that’s the other thing. I’d describe The Beauty Queen of Leenane as like Steptoe and Son meets Quentin Tarantino with a bit of Blanche Dubois over a smelly west of Ireland kitchen sink in the A-hole of nowhere. In some ways, it’s like a classic play, but you know that you’re going to have a great, fun night out - he’s balanced that brilliantly.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane runs at the Young Vic from 21 July to 21 August 2010 (previews from 15 July).