The plays in Martin McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy — first produced by Druid Theatre Company 20 years ago — are often characterised as cartoonish escalations of stage Oirishry. While they are this (and more), there is also a caustic dose of reality operating in each of them, and particularly in The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
While the play’s demented and hilariously kitschy melodrama brings the willing audience along with it, Beauty Queen is not empty of heart or substance. It revels in visceral shocks and baroque comedy, yes, and one or two stereotypes pass by without scrutiny, but the play has a torment in it, too, that flares up in disarming moments, ambushing the spectator.
For instance, the passive-aggressive conflict between mother and daughter offers an unnerving snapshot of the petty sadisms that habitually inform human relationships. In Druid’s new revival, Marie Mullen and Aisling O’Sullivan capture that to a tee.
More powerful still is the play’s modest disquisition on the emigrant experience in England, which is beautifully relayed here through the testimonies of the onetime skivvy Maureen (O’Sullivan) and the returned navvy Pato (Marty Rea). Indeed, in its own way, The Beauty Queen of Leenane interrogates the postcolonial aftershocks of England’s influence upon this country.
Thus, the ‘misdirected letter’ — a hoary old melodramatic device — becomes a more poignant thing when it is a letter written by an Irish emigrant back to his home place. McDonagh’s biography – that of a London man born to first-generation emigrants — is certainly telling here, and director Garry Hynes teases out those resonances.
Ultimately, however, the play’s success rests on its perfectly crafted plot and its deranged blending of pathos with piss-take. Beauty Queen, and Druid’s masterly new production makes you laugh until you’re sore. But it leaves you hurting just the same.
- Until Sep 24; then The Everyman, Cork, Sep 27-Oct 1; Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick, Oct 11-15; Gaiety, Dublin, Oct 18-29