The Beauty Queen of Leenane review: old elemental conflicts meet new pop-culture obsessions

Druid ’s new production of Martin McDonagh’s 1996 play, where violence is best kept in the family, has Marie Mullen, originally the daughter, now playing her tormentor


The Beauty Queen of Leenane ★★★
Town Hall Theatre, Galway

How seriously should we take Martin McDonagh’s 1996 debut, a play about mental and physical torture set in a septic vision of Connemara? Not very, advises the play, which opens with an ageing crone, Mag, deploring a man who strangled a woman in Dublin – “and he didn’t even know her”.

That gets to the heart of the matter. In this story of tyranny and vulnerability, passive-aggressive bonds and fantasies of escape, violence is something best kept in the family.

But if the play asks to be taken as a ghoulish and taunting comedy, where a 40-year-old virgin openly fantasises about being seduced at her mother’s funeral, Druid’s 20th anniversary production treats it with peculiar reverence. The lowing cellos and fretting piano notes of Paddy Cunneen’s music suggest immense gravity to a drama without weight. Francis O’Connor’s set, a grey bunker from which the orange lights of electrical sockets peek out like demonic eyes, is a perfect recreation of his 1996 original.

What do we find now in the play that sensationally introduced McDonagh and the company to the world? Pastiche, mainly, where the bored and excitable characters of Synge and the make-sure-she-gets-this-letter melodrama of Boucicault or Keane are introduced to a postmodern fixation with pop culture, from Australian soaps to endlessly discussed biscuits. Otherwise, its elemental conflict and heavy-handed explication make precious few demands. Here, characters say what little is on their minds.

Marie Mullen, the original Maureen, now plays her tormentor, making Mag a creature of bitter survival instinct. Chin low, eyebrows steepled, with a mouth that seems to be constantly sucking eggs, she lets every flicker of what might charitably be called Mag’s thought process animate her face. Frustrated and mentally fragile, Aisling O’Sullivan’s Maureen is a picture of awkwardness, nowhere better signalled than when a man embraces her while she is holding a heavy pot in one hand and a kettle in the other.

That man is Marty Rea’s Pato, making his speech as slow and thick as treacle, and the closest we find to a sympathetic character. Aaron Monaghan, as his brother and full-time courier, plays an adolescent role far younger than his years, a physically attentive performance that is more fascinating than convincing to watch.

Some productions of McDonagh have seized that unreality, inflating his characters into Grand Guignol monsters, making gruesome goofiness more enjoyable. But though director Garry Hynes inscribes funny jokes in the margins, the stately pace of her naturalism seems more deferential, insisting the play has a soul. But it is not a subtle play; gags and intentions are clobbered home. Druid gives it all in a prize production, but the pleasures of the play – symmetry and shock – are the pleasures of pure schlock.

- Until September 24th, then Everyman Cork (Sep 27th-Oct 1th), Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick (Oct 11th-15th), Gaiety Theatre, Dublin (18th-29th)