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).