A Skull in Connemara
A Skull in Connemara: 'A deliciously grim fantasy'
Pavilion Theatre, Co Dublin ****
When you dig up the past, all you get is dirty. That advice, from the film Minority Report, would serve the characters of Martin McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara well, and it might offer wise counsel to anyone inclined to exhume the second play of his Leenane Trilogy. Heavy with parody and bone-shattering violence, it first bludgeoned a jaded audience awake in 1997. Picking over its bones now, though, the play can seem wearisomely excessive; a juvenile satire more indebted to Tarantino than Synge.
Decadent Theatre’s astutely judged production begs to differ, though, by rooting deep into the earth of the play, and presenting it, quite persuasively, as a deliciously grim fantasy. If there’s a shiver of Danny Elfman in the twisted lullaby that opens the play, from composer Carl Kennedy, it introduces a staging as earthy and ethereal as a Tim Burton movie.
John Olohan’s Mick Dowd is a seasonal gravedigger with a controversial past, removing and pulverising human remains to make room for fresh bodies, and director Andrew Flynn recognises the premise as liberatingly daft. Few could take the play seriously, which uses a skeletal plot as a frame to stretch meandering discussions about the weather, the inconsequential prevalence of drink-driving, and whether or not Mick killed his wife some years earlier – a question on which almost nothing depends.
But Owen Mac Carthaigh’s fantastic set recognises that this all belongs to an unreal world, his bare cottage first rendered with tombstone solemnity, then revealing an ingeniously surreal landscape beneath Sinéad McKenna’s starkly beautiful lights. We may see graves plundered (and skulls shattered) from startling new perspectives, but McDonagh’s thefts are much more gleefully obvious. When absurdly overblown characters survive multiple head wounds, it doesn’t so much suggest Synge’s Playboy as bludgeon you with the reference, just as the Beckett lift in the title would palm the whole thing off as a gallows humour meditation on mortality.
The cast give the heavy gestures all the necessary bombast, but Flynn stealthily repositions them as characters in a grim fairytale. “Kissing skulls together,” Mick tutts at his witless accomplice, Martin (a commendably committed Jarlath Tivnan). “Like an oul schoolgirl.” Flynn actually lets you see the innocence in it.
That gives added resonance to Mick’s cackling badinage with Bríd Ní Neachtain’s enjoyably sour May Johnny about “Them eejit Yanks” buying fake images of Irishness, as though McDonagh is selling something similar to his audience.
To those already well disposed towards these outlandish caricatures, the production happily lets you see them as they are. It can’t make the play seem any less hollow, but it finds intriguing new ways to knock on its structure and to discover new echoes.
Currently at Backstage, Longford then tours to Ennis, Tralee, Cork and Limerick