The Martin McDonagh phenomenon is a curious one. He burst upon the world in 1996, aged 26, born in Camberwell, the son of Irish parents. The quirk of fate that placed him in south east London may or may not have been the making of him. But by pure accident, it put him, whether he had contact or not with them, with what was to become the abiding zeitgeist of the mid Nineties, BritArt – Damien Hirst, and Tracey Emin.
This may be a complete red herring as introduction to a review about the Young Vic’s revival of McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the play that set him on the path to fame and fortune in 1996. But I think it bears a little further expansion. For if Hirst, Emin and Co. have been notorious for one thing in common it has been their brilliant exploitation of shock tactics.
And so it is with McDonagh. In Joe Hiill Gibbins production, you marvel at the way McDonagh over and over again produces if not white rabbits out of a hat at least something akin, if bloodier. Like Pinter, he is a master of juxtaposition, the inane with the cruel. Timing is all.
Take this innocuous little speech from the mother of all mothers, Mag Folan, to her unmarried, 40 year old daughter, Maureen: `Did you meet anybody on your travels, Maureen? Ah no, not on a day like today. (Pause) Although you don’t say hello to people is your trouble, Maureen. (Pause). Although some people it would be better not to say hello to. The fella up and murdered the poor oul woman in Dublin and he didn’t even know her…(Pause) Strangled, and didn’t even know her.’
Now, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the pure idiocy of it. But the Young Vic’s opening night audience simply couldn’t believe their luck. They guffawed, they rocked and hugged McDonagh’s play to them.
Either they were being taken completely by surprise; or like Pinter, McDonagh’s reputation had gone before him (he is now the proud owner of an Oscar for his short film, Six Shooter as well as 2008 BAFTA award-winner and Oscar nominee for the screenplay of his first full length feature movie, In Bruges). Leastways, the audience were determined to laugh at anything that even faintly resembled a joke. It was as if they had suddenly transposed themselves into a Shakespeare’s Globe audience where spectatorship has now become an art form and audiences take positive possession of a play. Wondrous to behold, theatre participation in action.
And it wasn’t just laughing at McDonagh’s satirical jibes. When it came to moments of empathy, the sympathy was equally generous; it came in waves, in bucketloads.
All very heart-warming. Yet, for those of us who had seen The Beauty Queen of Leenane originally, unfortunately, doubts linger.
McDonagh is a writer of bitter cross-fertilisation. Tarantinoesque has frequently been applied to him as he kicks out at his Irish roots with a ferocious comic intensity. In Beauty Queen, set on the west coast, deep in rural Ireland, he takes the stock Irish `mam’ and turns her into the mother from hell, a woman of small-minded selfishness so extreme she will do anything to keep her daughter under her thumb, be it burning letters or reminding a suitor of her daughter’s mental breakdown in England.
The games she employs – one minute beseeching, the next snarling – are, I’m afraid, only too recognisable to anyone who has felt family buttons being pushed.
In Druid Theatre’s original production, directed by Garry Hynes, the dingy cottage and Mag, as played by the monumental Anna Manahan, spoke of twisted spiritual as well as economic impoverishment. Hypocrisy clung to those peeling distempered walls like spattered grease.
That sense of national as well as personal decay is somehow missing from Hill-Gibbins’s production in Ultz’s clever but too open immersive design – you enter through rain and turf to a Young Vic auditorium cut into a triangular staging. It softens the McDonagh effect and draws out unusually large swathes of compassion from this darkest of observers.
The disgust – Mag’s chamber pot emptied into the kitchen sink – and violence – scalding with hot fat, a poker-beaten death – are also nullified by Susan Lynch’s attractive Maureen. Here is a 40 year old who should appear like one whose life has been almost sucked out of her. Lynch, a terrific actor, is altogether too together though her one moment of sexual joy with David Ganly’s appealingly awkward Irish `navvy’ suitor, Pato is genuinely moving.
Indeed, groans, gasps and claps accompanied Pato’s loving letter to Maureen, sent from England inviting her to join him in America in Boston, which is destined never to reach her. He doesn’t know, but we know and the inevitability of Maureen’s last chance of happiness being snatched away gives the play its ready pathos.
The jokes keep coming. And Rosaleen Linehan – a definitive Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days – presides over it all with eye-watering vindictiveness and eye-narrowing watchfulness. She gives a master-class in restrained potency as McDonagh tightens the screws, employing that most classic of tactics: pre-cognisance, letting audiences in on a fate that the characters have yet to discover for themselves.
All in all a fine if too genteel revival that somehow feels more akin to a soft focussed Brian Friel night out than a wilful, wildly savage melodrama.