In January 1996, Druid Theatre Company premiered a play in Galway that was to have a considerable impact on the company’s future direction and a colossal effect on the fortunes of its young writer, Martin McDonagh.
Travelling to Broadway in 1997, The Beauty Queen of Leenane took America by storm, winning four Tony Awards — one for director Garry Hynes, and three for actors Marie Mullen, Anna Manahan, and Tom Murphy. Twenty years on from those heady days, Hynes is again at the helm for a new production of the play, with Mullen — who played the frustrated daughter dreaming of escape — now returning to take on the part of her one-time antagonist, the cunning, embittered elderly mother originally played by Manahan.
Hynes says she can still vividly recall the impression that McDonagh’s plays, later staged as The Leenane Trilogy, made when she first read the scripts.
“I knew there was something there straight away,” she says. “It was clear that the man could write dialogue. Now you’d think that this is the most obvious and basic requirement for any writer, but in fact it’s a real skill. And I remember very clearly that it was the first thing that hit me — his ability to write dialogue and create characters through it. And then, when I read the plays for the second and third time, I saw the skill and how ingeniously Beauty Queen in particular was plotted.”
As would become a McDonagh trademark, the Leenane plays are all invested with a gritty tinge of realism but, fundamentally, they’re a hyperreal and blackly comic imagining of rural Ireland.
“They’re so obviously the product of someone who knew whereof he was writing, but not as an ‘insider’,” says Hynes. “When it turned out that he was a 24-year-old London man of Irish parentage who spent most of his summers in Connemara, that just made complete sense.
“The four characters on which the play rests are all utterly recognisable to us — recognisable almost to the point of cliché even. So you can see why Martin’s plays, like Beauty Queen, were initially rejected by other theatres. Because, you’d say, ‘No, the island has moved on. We don’t write about virginal 40-year-old women warring with their selfish, ageing mother anymore’. That’s the 1930s or 1950s, you know. But he takes those very basic tropes and just turns them on their head. The four characters — the lovely single man in Pato, the young fellow who’s impatient to get the hell out of the place, and the mother and the daughter — they’re all recognisable. If I had a shilling for every time somebody came up to me and said, ‘how the hell did this guy know so well what my mother-daughter relationship is like’, well, I’d be a very rich person today.”
Though not prone to outpourings of sentiment, Hynes admits that returning to the play 20 years on, and seeing Mullen now in the role of the older woman, does trigger the emotions and thoughts about time’s passing. “It does,” she says. “I mean, seeing Marie sitting in the rocking chair and so effortlessly acting an old woman, yeah, you do sort of reflect on all the years that have gone by. One of the things, too, is that there are two presences in the rehearsal room, Anna and Tom, that are gone now.
“Obviously, doing something like this brings back the memories of them and of other people who have passed away. And you’re aware of a great big load of years behind you. But, look, it’s fantastic at the same time to be able to do this. To have premiered a play with Marie 20 years ago that became such a significant one, and then to be able to work with the same actor 20 years later, that’s a privilege beyond compare.”