In his mid-twenties at the time, Martin McDonagh hit it big with The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a marvelously polished pitch-black potboiler that premiered in Galway in 1996 and went on to enjoy acclaimed West End and Broadway seasons.
Sydney Theatre Company first produced it in 1999, directed by Druid Theatre Company’s Garry Hynes (who first plucked the play from a pile of unsolicited scripts) and starring Maggie Kirkpatrick and Pamela Rabe as McDonagh’s fractious mother and daughter Mag and Maureen Folan.
I saw that production – and the play twice since – and Beauty Queen is still a wonderful thing to watch and feel unfold, this time in the hands of Yael Stone and Noni Hazlehurst.
Richly detailed and on a grand-scale, this Renée Mulder-designed staging allows for interior and exterior views of Mag and Maureen’s gimcrack cottage on a hill. From the outside, the stone walled, turf-roofed pile looks a thousand years old. Inside, it looks like the clock stopped sometime in the 1970s.
And Mag is happy to keep it that way. Change is the thing she fears above all else.
Not so Maureen. Turning 40 and having been shackled to the infirm-when-it-suits Mag for half her life, her horizons are as low and murky as the skyline.
Their relationship, unsurprisingly, has turned toxic. Peevish and demanding, Mag gnaws at her daughter’s self-esteem and confidence. Maureen retaliates by selectively dialing down her mother’s care: the odd mug of tea denied; her Complan served lumpy; the wrong kind of biscuit brought back from the shop. Much of their daily routine is devoted to gently – and sometimes not so gently – torturing each other.
Then Pato Dooley (Hamish Michael) comes back to town. Aglow with the sheen that comes with a job on a London building site, he offers Maureen a last-chance offer of love and a new life. She can’t help but grab at it.
Spilling anymore of the plot would be doing a disservice. It’s enough to say that McDonagh’s play is beautifully structured and grips you tight. His plot devices are planted in plain sight, in the knowledge that we enjoy the anticipation of their deployment just as much as a surprise. Everything has a place and a purpose and that is to satisfy our expectations and on opening night there were audible gasps when it occurred.
Director Paige Rattray helms an emotionally elastic production. Stone brings a mercurial vivaciousness to her role and she’s quite chilling when Maureen turns abusive in the face of her mother’s cunning, which Hazlehurst radiates from the tatty armchair from which Mag watches her Australian soapies on the telly.
Rattray’s emotionally elastic staging creates a domestic cold war that can be funny one second, sinister the next. Who is the victim here? Who is captive and who the captor? It’s always shifting, endlessly intriguing and provoking, too. Can we still feel sympathy for someone who inflicts terrible pain, or for someone who denies her own child any possibility of happiness?
Hamish Michael is a somewhat younger Pato Dooley than seen in previous productions but his comic abilities make him very effective in the role (especially when confronted by the tang of Mag’s wee in the kitchen sink).
Shiv Palekar is excellent as Pato’s skittish little brother Ray, whose grief over a tennis ball lost ten years ago speaks volumes about a place where grievance is seldom forgotten.
The tone of the show’s ending strikes me as new. In previous productions, the play has ended in a haunting tableaux vivant, a melding of Mag and Maureen and a slow fade to black. Here, the story ends with a scream of frustrated rage.
To me, it’s a marginally less resonant conclusion, but the getting there is so riveting, it’s hard to feel in any way disappointed.