After all these years, she's still mad for it

Sat, May 14, 2011, 01:00

Rosaleen Linehan claims ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ will be her last big show, but even after 50 years she is finding adventure on the stage, writes ARMINTA WALLACE

‘EVERYTHING,” says Rosaleen Linehan, “is a bit of a learning whatnot.” It’s not what you expect to hear from someone who has been treading the boards for a good half century, but, then again, maybe the continual learning curve is what keeps the good reviews coming. And good reviews have been bestowed by the bucketload on her latest theatrical project, the Young Vic production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane,which follows a triumphant spell in London with a stint in Dublin and a brief jaunt to Cork.

“Rosaleen Linehan delivers a terrific tour de force,” the Telegraphpronounced. And from the Guardian: “Rosaleen Linehan is magnificent as Mag.” Linehan pretends to simper. “They seem to like me,” she says coyly, batting her eyelashes. Then, at the very moment my lips twitch, her expression changes to a scowl. “They don’t know me.”

This intuitive and ruthlessly accurate sense of comic timing has been Linehan’s trump card throughout her career. Not that it has stopped her from tackling a string of serious roles, but comedy has, at some level, always informed everything she does. McDonagh’s portrait of mother-daughter conflict is right up this tragicomic alley, and Linehan is having a ball with it.

“I first saw it in 1997, with Anna Manahan, when they were just back from Broadway,” she says. “I thought it was staggering. An American actor once said to me” – she adopts a low-pitched, slo-mo east-coast drawl – ‘Ibsen: better to be in than to be at.’ But there are some plays that are both brilliant to be in and to be at. And this, I think, is one of them.”

And the learning curve? There’s the director, Joe Hill-Gibbins. “Very strict, very demanding and very talented. He looks about 19. He takes some very interesting angles that I hadn’t come across before. I would never have worked in such particular detail.” For example, there’s a point in the play’s backstory when the daughter is committed to a psychiatric hospital in England. “I got on to a doctor friend of mine in London to find out how that would have happened, because usually you’d need a family member to be present. But he explained that if she had been violent there would be an acute committal procedure operated by the police and social services.”

This kind of investigation, she says, makes a real difference to the eventual performance. “You have something in hand when you get to that bit in the play. A little bit extra.”

Then there’s her “daughter”, played on this occasion by Derbhle Crotty. In London the role of Maureen was taken by Susan Lynch. “It really is like starting again. The daughter and myself are a duet, and with a different daughter it’s totally, totally different. They’re very different, anyway. Susan is a shy-ish, gentle-ish kind of person. Derbhle is the antithesis of that. And both far too good-looking. Derbhle’s a stunning-looking woman. But the designer will get rid of some of that.”

Is Mag the mammy from hell? “She is. But she has also got a daughter from hell. So many people – even people who have good relationships with their mothers – come out of this play and say, ‘There were times . . . there were times . . .’ ”

Linehan’s mother was a Belfast woman. “She was desperately funny – far funnier than me, as was one of my sisters – and very musical. Very light-hearted and very stylish, in a way, although she didn’t have much money to be stylish with. Unlike her Belfast sisters, she was not a good housekeeper – none of those terribly starched lace curtains for her. She would be much more interested in playing the piano and singing.” And teaching her daughters to do likewise.

“I have her music book at home. They obviously went out and bought the sheet music as it came out, just as people buy CDs now. She was older when I was born, and so was my father, so these things would be dated, like, 1902. Victorian songs. Operatic arias. Richard Tauber and Killarney, all stitched together in a book.”

The sisters all sang, pulling the curtains between the drawing room and the dining room. “My dad wouldn’t have anything to do with any of it. He was tone deaf and he was a man of the mountain. He made his way – one might say clawed his way – out of the bog. As so many people did. Actually, when we first saw the design for the house and the cabin in The Beauty Queen, a lot of people thought it was much too OTT, but it’s not unlike the family homestead in Donegal.”

Thirteen children came out of that homestead, and they all made their way in the world. Linehan’s father, Daniel McMenamin, left school at 12, worked in Belfast, came to Dublin, became a barrister, and was a TD for Donegal for nearly 30 years. “I don’t know how he did it. I’d love to know the process. He’d sit every night at the table after tea, answering his letters. They were quite a pair,” she concludes fondly.

Linehan went to school at Loreto College on St Stephen’s Green. “It was terrific: music morning, noon and night,” she says. “Piano, double bass, orchestra and choir. But no drama. When I went to UCD I walked straight into Dramsoc. There was a fellow called Des Keogh who was auditioning for a play. I walked in, auditioned and got it. There were two sets of us in Dramsoc. Those who did revues and musicals and all that sort of thing, and a very artistic lot who did Christopher Fry and Jacobean stuff.”

Keogh and Linehan formed a double act which was to produce more successful musical comedy than the Jacobeans could shake a stick at. Her first big production, Glory Be!,was a musical written by her husband, Fergus. “It was taken over and re-directed by the legendary – as she was then, in the early Sixties – Joan Littlewood. At her theatre in Stratford East. What a way to start your career.”

Fifty years on, she says The Beauty Queen of Leenanewill be her last big gig. She’ll have a week’s holiday in west Co Cork somewhere in the middle of the run; then she’ll begin rehearsing Beckett’s Endgamewith Keogh, ready to tour the US in the autumn. “Back in time to make the Christmas cakes.”

It would be a full schedule for any actor, never mind a 73-year-old. “It has been a long, tough road,” she says. “But mainly a happy one.” What would her highlights be? “Well, the revues with Des Keogh first of all. We used to try things out in the Embankment in Tallaght. It was pretty rough stuff, now. But some of the nights there, if you could have bottled them – they were just wonderful. I loved doing Mary Makebelieve with Fergus – our own adaptation of The Charwoman’s Daughter. Mother of All the BehansI loved. And, obviously, Dancing at Lughnasa. Happy Days. The Plough and the Stars. One of the first plays where I got a bit of nitty-gritty was Carthaginians.”

Which brings her back to the current production, and the unexplained alchemy that is theatre at its best. “Sometimes when I’m in the middle of a line or a bit of dialogue in Beauty Queen I think, How did this fella write this when he was 27? How did he do it? I love that feeling. I used to think that about Donal McCann when I looked at him on stage. How does he do that?” After 50 years on stage has she figured it out? “No. Never will.” And now people are looking at Linehan on stage, wondering, How does she do that? She laughs. “I wonder. I never think of myself in that way. You get these parts, these lovely parts, but you only get them on loan. Then they pass on to the next person. Almost like a relay race. But this has to be the last big one. I feel I’d really love to be less to the forefront. I half thought I’d like to go back to college. I was saying to a German friend, ‘What I’d love to do, if they’d let me, is a thesis on the films of Ingmar Bergman.’ The friend said. ‘No, no, Rosaleen: too dark for you. Much too dark. Do something else.’ And Fergus said, ‘I think Laurel and Hardy.’ ”

She riffs for a moment about the idea of going back to college, of skiving off to drink serial cups of coffee and leaving an untended house and garden far, far behind. “Unless,” she says, her eyes sparkling with mischief. “The only ‘unless’ is if it’s a new play. Two years ago I was in Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom, which was a totally new world for me. A new way of writing. The opening speech was a long monologue at breakneck speed with my back to the audience. A real adventure – that’s the great thing. Something brand new would be tempting.” A pause. Then a devilish grin. “I’m still mad for it, you know.”

Review: A nasty piece of work we are

Anyone with a passing familiarity with the Ireland of Martin McDonagh – where time has stopped still somewhere in the 1930s, petty family bitterness explodes routinely into violence and “It’s like this they do be talking” – knows it’s an uncertain place: somewhere between a country and a mental disorder.

The Young Vic’s fiendish revival of McDonagh’s first play gets that balance precisely right. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins threads the tension of its London-Irish imaginings through every element of performance and stagecraft.

The dismal Connemara cottage, designed by Ultz, where Derbhle Crotty’s 40-year-old virgin, Maureen, and Rosaleen Linehan’s sly, passive-aggressive mother, Mag, live in an eternal stand-off warps at its edges into industrial chaos, as though construction was merely abandoned. Charles Balfour’s lights are a similarly inspired accommodation of the functional and expressive: when Crotty, poised expertly between comedy and pathos, flaunts her sexuality, they glow with the stingy warmth of a three-bar heater; when Linehan’s masterfully played manipulator thwarts Maureen’s chance of romantic escape, they burn with the inferno of a stove.

The gruesome comedy and glib plotting of McDonagh can make everything seem shallow, but Linehan in particular finds an intention behind every line, squinting, stretching and flirting in her rocking chair, drawing herself up like a duchess to announce, “I do have the urine infection.” Likewise, Frank Laverty commits to his displaced character, making Pato’s torment seem like the play’s philosophy: “When it’s there I am, it’s here I wish I was,” and when he’s in Leenane, “It isn’t here I want to be either.”

When it’s in a knowing pastiche we are, it isn’t a melodrama we wish to be, but such consideration makes even the play’s more ludicrously emphasised plot contrivances engaging. I was surprised by audience gasps of “Don’t do it!” issued to Johnny Ward’s hapless courier, but more alarmed to realise they were coming from me.

This is an intelligent, unflinching and grimly funny production of one nasty piece of work. PETER CRAWLEY


The Beauty Queen of Leenaneis at the Gaiety, Dublin, until June 4th, and the Everyman Palace, Cork, June 7th to 11th.