As Martin McDonagh talks about violence, furrowing his brow with deep intent, I can’t take my eyes off the knife in his hand.
“I wouldn’t say it’s sensational,” McDonagh counters, quietly but with a south London edge, as the knife traces wide arcs in the air. “I would say it’s truthful to that story.”
We are talking about The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the play that began his meteoric rise in 1996, and its famous shock factor, which would become a staple of his career in theatre and, later, film. It seems unwise to argue with him while he's brandishing a weapon, I point out. He looks at it, edged with breakfast marmalade, laughs and returns to his point. "The jokes are as important to me as the violence and the sadness. It's as important as anything else."
McDonagh makes for disarming company: engaging, considered and remarkably candid. That might come as a disappointment to anyone expecting – perhaps hoping – to meet the pugnacious London-Irish young writer of 20 years ago, whom the press would cast as anything from a genius to a thug. Then in his mid-20s and in the spotlight of the world's media, McDonagh would often slyly assist: "To be in this position is strange," he told Fintan O'Toole in 1997, when Druid Theatre Company staged his Leenane trilogy, "because I'm coming to theatre with a disrespect for it."
That position has barely altered in two decades, however, even after eight produced plays – his most recent was last year's multi-award-winning Hangmen – and a film career that began with the Oscar-winning short Six Shooter and will soon see his third feature, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, starring Frances McDormand. (A mooted musical collaboration with Tom Waits and Robert Wilson will, alas, not be going ahead.)
When you read those early interviews again, McDonagh, bristling with a young man’s aggression, sounds like the least likely person ever to condone a 20-year retrospective of his work. He laughs.
“I don’t think it’s a retrospective,” he says. “It’s just that we’re doing the play again and making it a 20-year thing to help the box office . . . But I probably wouldn’t have condoned that either.”
Discovered by Garry Hynes as an unsolicited script in Druid's in-tray, The Beauty Queen of Leenane first met the world with the late Anna Manahan as a passive-aggressive mother, Mag, and Marie Mullen as her tormented, damaged daughter. When Hynes's celebrated production transferred to Broadway both its leads won Tony Awards, as did the late Tom Murphy in a supporting role. Hynes herself made history, becoming the first woman to win the Tony for direction of a play. The play is clearly important to the writer and the company, who remained loyal to each other: a defining, international success, made poignant by the loss of Manahan and Murphy.
“I like the idea of Marie going back as the mother,” McDonagh says. “I think that’s a great idea. You always hope that a play will still be relevant, or put on, 20 years later, but you can’t bank on it. It feels the time has flown so quickly. It’s so strange.”
10 extraordinary months
Towards the end of his life
looked at his novel
and remarked, “I do not know this author.” I wonder if McDonagh, who wrote most of his plays in 10 extraordinary months between 1994 and 1995, alone in his family’s Camberwell flat, could relate. Does he know this author?
“The attitude, and the thoughts, and the place it came from, is still there inside,” McDonagh says. “The speed and desperation I had, obviously, isn’t there in the same way. I know now that this is what I’m going to be doing for life, you know? Plays and films.
“But at the time – and that’s probably why I wrote so much – it was just like buying lottery tickets: one of them might hit.”
McDonagh had become used to rejection. “The more they were rejected out of hand the more determined I would be to keep making them,” he says. “Also, I had less of a regard for theatre at that point: a dislike of theatre combined with getting better as a writer. That and the anger I had about certain aspects of British theatre coalesced into the kind of plays I wrote. They were angry. Stuff would happen on stage. And I wasn’t really seeing that in British theatre.”
McDonagh has two favourites among his works. The first is The Pillowman, a distended fable about a writer of violent fantasies in a totalitarian state, which is the closest he has come to a personal artistic statement. "I don't usually want to try to say something in a play," he says cautiously, "but that one probably says as much, in a poetic way, as I'll ever want to, or try to."
"Beauty Queen will always be a favourite, because I think it's a really tight play, and when it's done right there is a sadness to it that I love. And there is a heart to it, I think, that isn't there in a couple of the others."
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a good introduction to McDonagh, told with his customary Synge-song syntax and liberally discussed consumer products – "You do make me Complan nice and smooth. Not a lump at all, nor the comrade of a lump" – melodramatic plot pivots and stomach-churning violence. But its female focus is unusual among his works, making its gorier lurches feel more unsettling.
His new film is something similar, he says. "It has a female protagonist, and a very strong one too, so it felt like the first time getting back to that since Beauty Queen. Part of it, as you said, is that it's much more shocking that a moment of violence can come from a woman on the stage." Don't tell that to Medea.
McDonagh safeguards his shocks. He was livid, not long ago, to attend a production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore in Sydney and discover that the director had tamed some of the lines over concerns of racism. "I probably should've shut that one down," McDonagh says. "If you think it's racist then don't do it." Nor is he inclined to revisit his plays. "No, no. The bad ones will stay bad. I think that as soon as something is seen you don't revisit it. If it's the young you then it's his mistakes, and that's what should always be there."
In other respects, though, he has done some growing up. Where once McDonagh spoke of theatre as the poor cousin of film, today he displays greater appreciation of their differences. “Even though I was slagging off the majority of what I perceived theatre to be, it was never a completely carte-blanche hatred of the form,” he says. “I still wanted to do good theatre. I didn’t want to take a play and make it into a film. And I will never, ever do that. In fact, I have too much respect for theatre to ever do that.”
His anger towards theatre, he thinks, was towards “a middle-class art form, or what I saw as a middle-class art form, that I as a working-class person was cut out of”. Does he still have that anger? A long pause follows.
“I think if I sit down to write a play I still have the same urge to want something exciting to happen on that stage. That’s more of a positive, I think. But I don’t think I have that rage . . . I mean, part of that rage was just being unemployed and poor as well. I’m not those things any more. But I do get just as angry when I see a bad play. Because I feel like it’s so easy not to do that.”
Although he does try to keep up with the work of his contemporaries – Enda Walsh, Tracey Letts and Conor McPherson – his solution is generally not to go to theatre.
And yet to hear his thoughts on the indelibility of film and the ephemerality of the stage is to realise that only one of those art forms has earned his trust. He directs all his films, for instance, but has never directed for theatre. Why is that?
"Part of the director's job on a film is to protect the writer, so that's half the battle. If I handed over In Bruges to anyone it wouldn't have been my film. Whereas – apart from in Australia – nobody can change a line of a play. So I've never felt the need to direct a play. But, also, I don't really know how to move people around the stage. What Garry is doing I wouldn't know the first thing about where to start. Even after 20 years."
There is one encouraging, if superficial, sign that McDonagh's philosophies about theatre and film are coming closer into line: their titles. With Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri McDonagh has finally applied his distinctive play-naming technique to his movies, with their peculiarly memorable combination of numerals or place names. "I honestly only spotted that in the last couple of years," he says. "I tried to break away from it with The Pillowman and Hangmen – but they've got 'man' and 'men'."
We discuss the matter in some detail, the way McDonagh's characters rarely glide over needling trivia. "There is a line in Pillowman where the writer says, 'You can't have a comma in a title.' "I like that I've stuck one in now. Just as a little in-joke."
Martin McDonagh, how you’ve changed.
Druid's 20th-anniversary tour of The Beauty Queen of Leenane opens at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway, on Wednesday, September 21st; it then tours to the Everyman, Cork (September 26th-October 1st), Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick (October 11th-15th) and Gaiety Theatre, Dublin (October 18th-29th); druid.ie