Martin McDonagh returns to London stage | World premiere of THE HANGMEN opens at Royal Court in September

It’s been a while since Martin McDonagh had a new play on in London. More recently, his A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE opened on Broadway in 2010 – where it was promptly disemboweled by Irish Times theater critic Fintan O’Toole.

Well McDonagh is at it again – this time at The Royal Court. THE HANGMEN opens in September.

From the archives | Fintan O’Toole’s 2010 review of A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE by Martin McDonagh on Broadway

I have referenced Irish Times theater critic Fintan O’Toole’s legendary slam of Martin McDonagh’s 2010 Broadway play A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE (which O’Toole called a “disaster”) enough times, I finally had to go and subscribe to the IT so that I could get access to the review in the digital archives.

Here it is for you.

+++

Arch McDonagh takes a wrong turn to dead-end Americana

March 20, 2010

Fintan O’Toole

CULTURE SHOCK: For this awful, knowing parody in the Tarantino genre, McDonagh should return to his superior, terrible beauties.

EVEN FOR admirers of Martin McDonagh (present company included), it is almost a relief that, before reaching 40 this month, he has finally hatched a turkey. Ever since the opening night of The Beauty Queen of Leenane in Galway in February 1996, the only thing that has slowed the progress of the Irish theatre’s wunderkind has been the deep drift of bouquets and laurels he has had to wade through. Some of us had begun to wonder whether the legal firm of Lucifer Beelzebub and Mephistopheles didn’t have a contract on file signed in suspiciously garish red ink. This, after all, is a writer who put together a little film so he could learn how to direct ( Six Shooter) and won an Oscar for it.

Given the flamboyance of McDonagh’s career, it is fitting that his new play on Broadway, A Behanding in Spokane, is a prince among turkeys – golden, organic and butter-basted. And the totality of the play’s failure may, in the long run, make it one of the most useful things he has done. Most major playwrights – indeed most serious artists – learn more from their disasters than from their triumphs. In that sense, A Behandingshould be a defining experience for McDonagh. It clarifies – for the viewer and perhaps for himself – the nature of his mercurial, mysterious talent by defining the ground over which it does not travel.

Understanding that the play is, indeed, very bad is not quite as straightforward as it should be. When people are paying $130 (€95) a ticket to get into the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre and greeting the curtain call with standing ovations, it is easy to fall for defensive delusions. But the poverty of the play is masked by Christopher Walken’s mesmerising performance in the central role of Carmichael, who lost a hand in his youth and has spent the rest of his life searching for it. As masks go, Walken would grace the most lavish Venetian carnival. He would be magnetic if he stood on stage reading the assembly instructions for an Ikea flat-pack sofa, and a lot of people would pay $130 to witness the act.

Walken is indeed magnificent here, and he clearly relishes McDonagh’s language and humour. McDonagh’s work always walks a line between the grotesque and the playful, between horror and hilarity. And nobody knows that line as well as Walken does. Every Walken take is a double take. He’s one of the very few actors who can have his tongue in his cheek at the same time as his teeth are in your flesh. He is a refugee from both Samuel Beckett (he has himself got up like the ghostly protagonist of Ohio Impromptu) and a schlock thriller. He is genuinely terrifying and not at all serious. The weird smile that plays around his lips is simultaneously an expression of psychosis and of knowing bonhomie. While he’s on stage (for about half the 90 minutes of the show), you can almost believe that there’s a play going on here.

The downside is that when Walken walks off stage (or rather climbs out the window of the dingy motel room in which all the action unfolds), there’s an almost palpable shock of realisation that the rest is not merciful silence but lame chatter. McDonagh has, among other things, always been a brilliant parodist – of John B Keane and Tom Murphy, of Synge and Beckett, of Pinter and the Brothers Grimm. But here he’s parodying himself: A Behandingfeels like nothing so much as an over-extended skit on McDonagh’s favourite tics – the meta-theatrical game-playing, the grand guignol of stray body parts (in this case a collection of severed hands), the repetitions and reversals of the dialogue, the self-conscious absurdities of plot. A parody of a parody may be the ultimate in post-modern theatre but it also proves in practice how blind an alley all this knowingness can become.

The problem becomes a simple one: A Behanding isn’t funny. The opening five minutes are grimly hilarious, and there are a few good jokes along the way.

But the action is far too slack for a successful farce. (Even the mechanics are extraordinarily lazy: the little grifters that Carmichael ties to the heating pipes are within reach of a phone but it doesn’t occur to them to call the cops.) And it’s far too self-satisfied to be outrageous. Sam Rockwell, who plays the motel receptionist, is a fine actor, but when he’s left to carry the burden of comic invention, it turns out to be an empty basket.

The question of taste also arises here. McDonagh has long been a master of bad taste (not at all the same thing as having no taste at all). But it’s been grounded in character – he gets away with pushing boundaries because he convinces you that this is what the character might actually say. But here there is no characterisation worth talking about. When Carmichael talks repeatedly of “niggers” and “fags”, and one of his captives, the ditzy Marilyn (Zoe Kazan) criticises his racism and homophobia, there’s a sense that McDonagh is not so much having his cake and eating it as licking the icing and then spitting it out. He wants the shock value but not the consequences.

A Behanding is like the can of gasoline that Carmichael places in the room with a lit candle on top – it never ignites. For all the elements of contrived controversy, it is actually rather tame. And this surely says something about McDonagh’s imagination. All games, however fancy, have to be played on solid ground. McDonagh’s brilliant stagecraft, his linguistic cleverness and his gifts as a fabulist have always had a ground beneath them. His versions of the West of Ireland, of the Northern Ireland conflict or of the dark world of childhood imagination may have large elements of parody but they are parodies of something real. That element of reality, however playfully refracted, anchors his humour and invention in genuine human emotions.

A Behanding is anchored only in what has always been the worst of McDonagh’s many sources of influence: Quentin Tarantino. It attempts the same kind of self-referential, movie-saturated, rather arch Americana.

McDonagh turns out to be no good at it. For me, at least, that is a cause for celebration. He is much, much better than Tarantino will ever be. When he remembers that, he may look back on the disaster of A Behanding as the mudslide that blocked a road he should not go down.

If it shows him where he shouldn’t go, it may also point him in the right direction – towards a deeper engagement with theterrible humour of humanity.

Martin McDonagh’s THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE bears down on Portland

You probably remember the first time you read or saw BQL, as it’s known in shorthand among Irish theatre aficionados.

It is no exaggeration to say that this 1996 debut by Martin McDonagh did more for Ireland’s theatre tradition and international brand than any other play in a long time.

The uproarious tale that whacked ye old Ireland on the arse, just as the country was about to become the new Ireland (of course, it’s since reverted back to ye old Ireland – oh well, that’s another story), was one of those seminal 90’s cultural moments. Almost 20 years later, the piece retains its bite, impact, and beautiful dramatic form.

If you haven’t seen or read it? Here comes your chance. BEAUTY QUEEN is coming to town at Third Rail in just a few short weeks.

Meanwhile, here’s some time travel. See photos from the original show here.

A Gasp for Breath Inside an Airless Life

By BEN BRANTLEY

Published: February 27, 1998, Friday

Sometimes you don’t even know what you’ve been craving until the real thing comes along. Watching the Druid Theater Company’s production of ”The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” the stunning new play from the young Anglo-Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh, is like sitting down to a square meal after a long diet of salads and hors d’oeuvres. Before you know it, your appetite has come alive again, and you begin to feel nourished in ways you had forgotten were possible.

For what Mr. McDonagh has provided is something exotic in today’s world of self-conscious, style-obsessed theater: a proper, perfectly plotted drama that sets out, above all, to tell a story as convincingly and disarmingly as possible.

”The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” which opened last night at the Atlantic Theater Company with the sterling team that first performed it two years ago in Galway, Ireland, is on many levels an old-fashioned, well-made play. Yet it feels more immediate and vital than any new drama in many seasons.

Simply saying what the play is about, at least on the surface, is to invite yawns. A plain middle-aged woman, trapped in a life as a caretaker to her infirm but iron-willed mother in rural Ireland, is offered a last chance at love. Haven’t we all been this way before? Doesn’t this sound like an eye-glazing variation on the themes so reliably manipulated in the revival of ”The Heiress,” the stalwart stage adaptation of Henry James’s ”Washington Square,” several seasons ago?

But wait. If ”Beauty Queen” is a bucolic cousin to ”The Heiress,” it also has the more toxic elements found in Grand Guignol films like ”Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” And Mr. McDonagh, who is only 27 years old, has a master’s hand at building up and subverting expectations in a cat-and-mouse game with the audience, of seeming to follow a conventional formula and then standing it on its head. The play offers the satisfactions of a tautly drawn mystery, yet it is by no means airless. There’s plenty of room for ambiguity and for the intricacy of character that actors live for.

Under the finely modulated direction of Garry Hynes, a founder of the Druid Theater Company, the splendid four-member ensemble gives full due to the play’s cunning twists and reversals while creating the sense that character is indeed fate. It’s the thorough integration of every element that astonishes here, the meshing of psychology and action. There’s not a single hole in the play’s structural or emotional logic, and yet it constantly surprises. Even as the plot grips and holds you, the performances engage you on a darker, deeper level.

Mr. McDonagh’s reputation is already so firmly established in Britain that it has undergone a full cycle of star-making praise and skeptical backlash. Since the debut of ”Beauty Queen” in London at the Royal Court Theater (a co-producer of the New York incarnation), the city has seen the two other plays in his ”Leenane Trilogy,” as well as the popular National Theater production of his ”Cripple of Inishman,” to be staged here later this month with a largely American cast at the New York Shakespeare Festival.

The excitement is justified, at least on the basis of ”Beauty Queen.” The work isn’t revolutionary; it doesn’t open a window onto new experimental vistas. It’s intelligent but not intellectual. And while it uses language with wit and precision, it is not, as so many contemporary plays are, about language and its limitations.

Instead, ”Beauty Queen” confirms the viability of the well-made play, reminding us at the same time of how difficult the genre is to execute. Compare it to such current examples of the form as ”The Last Night of Ballyhoo” or even the compelling revival of Arthur Miller’s ”View From the Bridge.” There’s always at least a slight feeling of something imposed from without, of plot as a pegboard for theme.

With ”Beauty Queen,” on the other hand, nearly everything feels organic, an inevitable outgrowth of character and environment. The play never leaves its single setting, realized with merciless detail by Francis O’Connor, a shabby room in the hilltop country cottage inhabited by old Mag Folan (Anna Manahan) and her embittered daughter, Maureen (Marie Mullen). And though we are told the women do in fact step out of their house from time to time, you feel they never really leave it.

They come to seem as imprisoned as the characters in Sartre’s ”No Exit.” The evening’s opening image finds Mag seated, stock-still, before a television set, and she looks as if she has been there for centuries. Ms. Manahan is a large woman, her girth enhanced by Mr. O’Connor’s scruffy layers of clothing, and Mag seems to fill and anchor the room. It is obvious that if Maureen is ever to escape into a life of her own, she will have to dislodge a mother who appears as immovable as a mountain.

The symbiosis between Ms. Manahan and Ms. Mullen is extraordinary as Mag and Maureen swap insults, demands and recriminations in a circular game of one-upmanship. It is a game that has obviously been going on for many years, and while the resentment behind it is real, so is the devious pleasure each takes from it. Mr. McDonagh’s spare, brutal dialogue is measured out by these actresses with a refined timing that is both comic and ineffably sinister.

For as the talk continues, spanning topics from Mag’s peevish demands for tea and biscuits to local gossip to a murder in Dublin, the subtle shifts in power become dizzying. Who really has the upper hand? Why do references to banal subjects seem so menacing? Who is the victim of whom?

Mr. McDonagh is too smart to provide hard and fast answers. When two visitors from the outside world, the Dooley brothers, Ray (Tom Murphy) and Pato (Brian F. O’Byrne), are used as pawns by Mag and Maureen in their continuing war, the rules that govern the women’s relationship become more and more complicated. With small flicks of the eyes and resettings of their mouths, both actresses transform, at different moments, from torturer to hostage and back again.

Ms. Mullen, a pale, red-haired woman who can look terminally worn out one instant and electrically vibrant the next, undergoes another metamorphosis. That’s when Maureen brings Pato, a local man working in England, home from a party. In the awkward, exquisitely rendered courtship scene between them, Maureen acquires a melting gentleness and openness that is infinitely sad. Neither actress nor playwright, however, allows you to bathe for very long in the sentiments called forth here.

As performers, the men are a match for the women, which is high praise. Mr. O’Byrne’s Pato is a delicate study in self-consciousness, a shy man pulling himself into postures of virile dignity before he makes sexual overtures or a pretty speech. When he gallantly calls Maureen by the epithet of the play’s title, it jolts both lovers in unexpected ways. The silence that follows echoes with the sense that a perilous frontier has been crossed.

As Pato’s much younger brother, who serves a plot function out of ”Romeo and Juliet,” Mr. Murphy offers comic relief without ever presenting it as such. His, more than any other character, must embody the provincial society beyond the women’s home, and Ray’s irritable restlessness is eloquent on the subject.

In all of Mr. McDonagh’s plays, there’s a sense that life is cheap and a piquant awareness of the skull beneath the skin. (His second play in the Leenane trilogy is called ”A Skull in Connemara” for literal reasons.) Ms. Hynes accordingly brings a haunting physical dimension to her production, an aura of mortal decay.

It’s evident not only in the presentation of the sheer bulk of Mag, but also in the arresting moment when Maureen takes off her coat to reveal a sleeveless dress that is too young for her. Seen later in a pearlescent slip after her night with Pato, Ms. Mullen’s Maureen brings to mind the anatomical portraits of Philip Pearlstein, with their sobering suggestions of the way of all flesh.

Correspondingly, seemingly prosaic objects acquire resonant weight in Mr. McDonagh’s plays, much as they do in the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. Even in reading ”Beauty Queen,” you can gather how carefully Mr. McDonagh sets up and develops the use of such things as a frying pan, a pair of rubber gloves and, most classically, an unopened letter.

It’s all the more pleasurable to see how Ms. Hynes, with the invaluable assistance of the lighting designer, Ben Ormerod, summons those objects into our consciousness at different times, miraculously achieving on stage what Hitchcock did with cinematic close-ups. And you may find images from ”Beauty Queen” creeping unbidden into your imagination long after you’ve seen it.

Toward the end of the play, Ray talks about his affection for foreign shows on television. ”Who wants to see Ireland on telly?” he asks. ”All you have to do is look out your window and see Ireland. And it’s bored you’d be.” He adds, pantomiming a slow, sweeping gaze, ”There goes a calf.”

In Mr. Murphy’s interpretation, it’s a pricelessly funny moment. Fortunately, though, Ray’s creator understands that the most static picture is often teeming with hidden life, that frustration and boredom create dangerous diversions and that simple lives are often filled with contradiction.

”Beauty Queen” finds the tragic pattern in these things, while acknowledging that the forces beneath it can never be fully explained. In the telling, this play seems as clear as day. When you look back on it, it’s the shadows that you can’t stop thinking about.

THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE

By Martin McDonagh; directed by Garry Hynes; sets and costumes by Francis O’Connor; lighting by Ben Ormerod; original music by Paddy Cunneen; production stage manager, Matthew Silver; general manager, Bardo S. Ramirez; production manager, Tor Ekeland for Crux. A Druid Theater Company/ Royal Court Theater production presented by the Atlantic Theater Company, Neil Pepe, artistic director; Hilary Hinckle, managing director. At 336 West 20th Street, Chelsea.

WITH: Anna Manahan (Mag Folan), Marie Mullen (Maureen Folan), Tom Murphy (Ray Dooley) and Brian F. O’Byrne (Pato Dooley).

“Surely Ireland can’t be such a bad place so if people want to see plays about it.” | Avoiding sharper critique of stage Irishry, THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN on Broadway lacks force, authenticity

A great production of CRIPPLE (Druid 2011) can still work. But a merely serviceable rendition highlights the serious dramatic flaws and dead air in McDonagh’s juvenile script. Key Irish context missing. Radcliffe’s voice not big enough. Clichéd, “me lovely Oireland” background music evokes unintentional laughs, memories of FAR AND AWAY.

Thru July 30

Martin McDonagh back on Broadway with Michael Grandage production of THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN

For the first time in four years, the ass kicker of modern Irish theatre is back on New York’s Great White Way. That’s John Michael McDonagh‘s little brother Martin, who’s written a few plays you may have heard of.

The Michael Grandage Company production of McDonagh’s sharp (if less gruesome than his usual standard) THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN opened tonight at the Cort Theater, and yes, He Did Like It (NYT review).

It helps that a certain Harry Potter star is inhabiting the role of Cripple Billy.

McDonagh and Michael Grandage.
McDonagh and Michael Grandage.

This way to Leenane

It was 1995 and an unknown Londoner of Irish parentage thunked a new play down on the doorstep of Galway’s Druid Theatre.

He’d ridden all night by horseback from Dublin, and before that rowed an open currach across the Irish Sea from Holyhead in a gale, and before that run across England pursued by wild dogs – all the while with said script (miraculously unscathed) in hand.

Alright, maybe it wasn’t quite that dramatic. But still.

In some such legendary origin moment was born one of the most influential Irish plays of the late 20th century. Opening in Galway in February 1996 and then moving on to London (Olivier Award) and New York (four Tony Awards), Martin McDonagh’s THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE took the world by storm and vaulted McDonagh, director Garry Hynes, and Druid to international stardom.

And now it’s coming to Portland to complete Third Rail’s production of the Leenane Trilogy. If you’re an old timer you’ll recall Third Rail’s unforgettable, Drammy-studded production of McDonagh’s THE LONESOME WEST, way back in May of 2006 at the IFCC. That show established Third Rail as Portland’s leading theatre, a role the dynamic company have continued to grow into ever since.

The morbidly gruesome fun all starts on May 30.

You’re not going to want to miss this one.

On Ireland's wild west coast, you will fine Leenane.
On Ireland’s wild west coast, you will fine Leenane.

Watch out for the older brother | John Michael McDonagh’s new film CALVARY opens the 2014 Dublin International Film Festival

You’ve probably heard of Martin McDonagh.

Almost 20 years ago, the London Irish playwright was discovered by Galway’s Druid Theatre, and proceeded to set the world aflame with a series of funny, violent plays about a backward and benighted Ireland. After an intense period of output, McDonagh moved on to film, and has not returned to theatre since, save for one spectacularly bad new play in 2010, A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE. Legendary Irish Times theatre critic and intellectual Fintan O’Toole wrote a famously excoriating review of the New York premiere of BEHANDING that people still talk about (but that has unfortunately disappeared from the IT’s inept web site).

But then there’s the older brother.

If you’ve seen a Martin McDonagh play like THE LONESOME WEST, you may have surmised that young Martin did not grow up home alone. Indeed. And as older brothers will do, John Michael McDonagh has been showing up in Martin’s world – film – with some pretty good stuff.

Elder McDonagh’s new film CALVARY will appear in a few months in the Dublin International Film Festival. And if past plays and films by the brothers McDonagh are any indicator, there should be some rough language and good black comedy for all.

The older brother returns.
The older brother returns.