Sunday, 25 January 1998

The Leenane Trilogy by Martin McDonagh, Jan 25, 1998

The Leenane Trilogy by Martin McDonagh
Druid Theatre/Royal Court Theatre
At Footbridge Theatre Sydney until January 31, 1998
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around Jan 24, 1998

Nine and a half hours at the theatre, including food and nap breaks, is more than a day's work.

Such are the demands of Martin McDonagh's Leenane Trilogy, although theatre wimps may choose to see it on three separate nights.  They are far less taxing than eleven hours of Peter Brook's majestic Mahabarata or Phillip Glass's minimalist Einstein on the Beach.

Plays by 'angry young men' are all the rage now and The Leenane Trilogy is no exception. The Druid Theatre co-production with The Royal Court (which produced the original 'angry young man' play, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger), has gripped Ireland, England and New York and now has Sydney by the scruff of the neck.

Characters in Leenane, an isolated village in Western Ireland, rage and brutalise, booze and pontificate, murder and suicide in three loosely connected but discrete narratives. They are light and excruciatingly hilarious pieces that skitter across the top of the more serious issues, only occasionally breaking the surface to penetrate their deeper implications. This makes them easy to digest but a less than satisfying meal.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, McDonagh's first professional play, was staged in 1996 after its development through Druid's new writers' program. It is, like the others, comic realism with a huge dollop of Irish absurdity and grotesquery and a rough structure.

At forty and relentlessly single, Maureen Folan (Marie Mullen)  is trapped caring for her grotesque, whining mother (Anna Manahan). Maureen's virginal desperation is relieved by the romantic reappearance of lonely Pato Dooley (Brian F. O'Byrne). But Mag burns invitations and letters delivered by Pato's younger brother, Ray (Aidan McArdle) in a ferocious act of sabotage that ends in murder and madness.

Sound deadly serious? Strangely, no. Maureen's rise and decline provide the most tragic moments.but, essentially, Mc Donagh writes like a stand-up comic. In all three, he is seeringly funny about his Irish cousins, their boozing, cursing, superstition, rampant emigration, incompetence and parochialism

He pulls the rug out from under darker scenes before we are drawn into a trilogy more emotionally and intellectually challenging, but probably too harrowing to contend with in a single sitting without valium.

A Skull in Connemara, the least evolved text, ambles about its narrative, cracking jokes and skulls in its path. Mick Dowd (Maeliosa Stafford) is suspected of having murdered his wife. As gravedigger, he must exhume her bones to make room for new corpses. It escalates into a hilarious drunken romp as Mick and dizzy young Mairtin (David Wilmot) smash old bones with mallets, listening to ' music to hammer dead fellas by' which is 'more fun than hamster-cooking.'

This play is brutal black comedy but is weakened by a rambling structure, some obvious jokes and adolescent attempts to shock we who are virtually unshockable by references to vomit or urine.

The final play, The Lonesome West, has the most electrifyingly comic dialogue. McDonagh's machine-gun gags, cruel family rivalries and village frustrations, are rife.

Brothers Valene, the pasty-faced wimp (O'Byrne) and Coleman, the barbarian (Stafford) have buried their father who was shot 'accidentally' after criticising Coleman's hairdo. The two exist in a living hell, tormenting each other to distraction. Valene blackmails Coleman into signing away his inheritance. Coleman destroys Valene's collection of holy figurines and waters his formidable brew, pocheen.

The drunken and maudlin Father Welsh (David Ganly), whose name no-one can ever remember, makes it his last wish that they cease fire.

McDonagh cooks up a comic feast of their feeble attempts to form a truce..

Welsh,a tragic figure makes 'a terrible priest' because 'you are a terror for the drink and you have doubts about Catholicism.' says his seductive teenage admirer, Girleen (Dawn Bradfield). One of the sweetest, most intimate and satisfying moments in the plays is the farewell scene between Girleen and her priest.

Gary Hines swift direction is unequivocally exceptional as are all performances Mullen captures the fragility and despair of the beauty queen, and Manahan the mother's grossness. O'Byrne's range in all three is commendable, particularly as the childish Valene.

This is an exhaustive rather than exhausting stretch in the theatre. The plays are relentlessly, achingly funny but they are by no means masterpieces.


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