Having already kicked off in Waterford, the show takes in the Cork Opera House and Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre before finishing up in the University Concert Hall, Limerick, at the end of March.
Vintage McDonagh, the play is drenched in the London-Irish writer’s savage wit and dark storytelling.
“It’s set in a Connemara full of bitterness and frustration,” says Decadent artistic director Andrew Flynn. “Every year the same man — Mick Dowd — has to make room for new bodies in the local graveyard by exhuming remains that are seven years old. As the play begins we learn that this year he’s going to have to exhume the bones of his late wife, who had died in very suspicious circumstances. And that’s the backdrop. There’s an element of whodunit and it’s great fun. And yet, at its heart, there’s also a darkness.”
McDonagh’s original inspiration for the play came from a burial he had attended in Galway.
“Martin told me this himself,” says Flynn. “He was at a funeral — I think it might have been his uncle’s funeral — and as he was leaving the graveyard he took a glance back and he saw the gravediggers just throwing the old bones back in. And he was fascinated by that, by the disrespect with which these bones were treated.”
Flynn was still cutting his teeth in theatre, as an assistant at Druid when the Galway theatre company premiered A Skull in Connemara in the mid 1990s as part of the Leenane Trilogy. Of course, the three plays took the world by storm and McDonagh became an overnight sensation.
“It was an incredible time,” he recalls. “Martin was completely unheard of. He had written these great Irish characters. The way they spoke, no one could believe this man who’d grown up in England could have written them. The language was like something from Synge. And yet, at the time, I don’t think anyone knew they were going to be as successful as they became.
“Druid were doing a new play and they thought it was a very good play. And that was it. But I remember the opening performance of The Beauty Queen of Leenane and the reactions of the audience. It was really, really fresh and exciting. People just instinctively knew that this was very good. It had that perfect mix of comedy, tragedy and darkness. And overnight Martin became like the Riverdance of Irish drama.”
Within a few years, McDonagh had four plays running on London’s West End at the same time. Meanwhile, on Broadway his productions with Druid were taking audiences by storm. In the years since his breakthrough, McDonagh has gradually moved to cinema, writing and directing In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.
“Martin is a force of nature,” says Flynn. “I just hope he starts writing plays again, because they’re a joy to work on, and a joy to watch with an audience. He plots so well and there are these great elements of melodrama. I remember the famous letter scene during the opening night of Beauty Queen. The old woman was trying to coax the young man into giving her the letter that’s intended for her daughter and the audience got so involved, with all sorts of oohing and aahing. And that’s what is happening in Skull as well. There are moments in the play where the audience become vocal and say, ‘Oh no!’ It’s wonderful when a play has that power to bring an audience into the story.”
Decadent’s revival of A Skull in Connemara has won plaudits for Owen MacCarthaigh’s daring set design. Creating a spectacle that would do the play justice was a central concern for Flynn from the beginning.
“When the trilogy was first produced, Skull was always considered the lesser play of the three,” Flynn recalls. “It was the one that was sandwiched between Beauty Queen and The Lonesome West, and because it was very much produced as part of that trilogy, it brought constraints to what they could do in terms of staging. So I’ve always thought that the show warranted a production in its own right, where it didn’t have that pressure on it.
“We wanted to realise what Martin’s vision was. There is a graveyard in the play and even though it’s only in one scene, it’s key to it all. So Owen has created a very impressive and atmospheric design. One reviewer compared it to something from a Tim Burton movie and that’s quite true. It’s a fantastic playground for the actors to work on and it produces a major theatrical moment in the play that seems to excite people.”
Notably, there have been changes to the cast since last year’s tour. Garrett Keogh replaces John Olohan in the lead role while Maria McDermottroe replaces Brid Ni Neachtain as Maryjohnny.
Since Decadent’s foundation in 2000, Flynn has nursed his vision for a company primarily focused on contemporary Irish drama and regional touring. Skull is just the latest in a series of much praised shows — among them Faith Healer, Port Authority, and Doubt — that have seen Decadent establish itself as a big player in the national theatre scene in recent years.
Later this year, Flynn will direct a fresh revival of Stuart Carolan’s 2004 play Defender of the Faith. Carolan — the writer of Love/Hate — is hot property these days and if even a percentage of the Love/Hate devotees come out for that show, Decadent’s continuing rise looks assured.