Boning up on rural Irish drama

Martin McDonagh’s A Skull In Connemara is a macabre comedy, says Colette Sheridan

DIRECTOR Andrew Flynn, of Galway-based Decadent Theatre Company, is revisiting Martin McDonagh’s darkly humorous play, A Skull In Connemara. It opens at Cork’s Everyman Theatre on Mar 19 as part of a national tour.

Flynn was the stage manager on the original Druid and Royal Court co-production of the play, in 1997. It was staged with the other Leenane Trilogy plays, The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West, directed by Garry Hynes. Flynn, nominated as best director in the 2012 Irish Times Awards, says that while A Skull In Connemara is regarded as the weakest of McDonagh’s plays, directing it stand-alone is liberating.

“Maybe it’s not as good as the other plays in the trilogy. But it’s still a fantastic play and when it’s not judged against the other two, it really stands on its own,” Flynn says.

The play centres on Mick O’Dowd (John Olohan) and is set in Connemara. For one week each autumn, he is hired to disinter bones in his local cemetery to make way for new arrivals. As the time approaches for him to dig up his late wife, rumours about Mick’s involvement in her sudden death seven years earlier resurface. Nosey neighbours, troublesome teenagers and an ambitious Garda contribute to this macabre, funny play.

Flynn says of McDonagh’s inspiration. “The idea for it came from a very simple image. Martin was at an uncle’s funeral. When he was walking away from the grave, he looked back and saw the gravedigger putting bones back into the grave in which his uncle was buried. It’s a very strong image. Martin actually saw a skull roll into the grave.”

McDonagh, says Flynn, is a storyteller. “The story is everything. He’s not necessarily interested in academic analysis and trying to find the deep and meaningful stuff that lies beneath. As Martin might say, there isn’t anything deep and meaningful.”

The play is also about rural loneliness and “brings the audience on a journey with Mick, trying to ascertain if he’s telling the truth. He professes that he’s not guilty of killing his wife. It’s a very funny play, but the secret to it, like all Martin’s work, is that there is a real, dark edge and a dark heart to it.

“Amid the humour, there’s that whole theme of rural Ireland and the loneliness of a man living alone. All that comes to the surface. There’s huge laughter from audiences, but also gasps of shock. It’s like a great melodrama.” Flynn says that audiences “buy into the play, probably because the characters are recognisable. Certainly, they’re extreme, but we all know people like Mick O’Dowd and his neighbour, Maryjonny.”

For Flynn, the challenge is the play’s darkness. “If you don’t get the moments of emptiness and loneliness, there’s a danger of the play just becoming a panto. Control is necessary; otherwise, the audience could end up laughing at everything.”

The play is rarely performed on its own. “While it has been done internationally, there hasn’t been a major Irish production of it since the first Druid production. The reason for this is that it has the reputation of not being a great play. But I really think it suffered by being staged along with the other two plays. It is a fine play that has a brilliant storyline. Mick is very dark. He drinks a lot of poitín and is paranoid about what people say about him. The job of digging up the bones every year is a taboo subject in itself. The neighbours dislike the fact that a local man is doing this job,” Flynn says.

Olohan makes Mick likeable. “Mick has a temper and is well able to insult the other characters. They’re all able to insult one another. But there’s an honesty to them. These people don’t suffer fools,” Flynn says.

The set, designed by Owen McCarthaigh, “is a wonder to behold. The graveyard scene is like something out of a Tim Burton movie. It’s really atmosphere and realistic. Owen has provided a sort of playground for the play. There’s an eerie atmosphere and a sense of the audience hoping certain things won’t happen. A lot of that comes from Mick’s relationship with an annoying young fellow called Mairtín, who thinks he should be a lord mayor. He’s not the smartest. In a way, he’s like Mick’s sidekick. A lot of the bigger dramatic moments are about their relationship and what is going to happen to Mairtín,” Flynn says.

McDonagh, whose second feature film, Seven Psychopaths, was recently released, has said that his interest is cinema. “Having worked with Martin in the rehearsal room and seen him give actors notes, I would say he really cares about theatre. He has created a persona that doesn’t give a damn. But I would say he’s the opposite of that. The persona really works. It gets him plenty of press. It’s a very clever thing.”

There is a cinematic quality to McDonagh’s plays. “People might say he’s another John B Keane, writing plays set in rural Irish kitchens. But you don’t expect a daughter to kill her mother (as happens in The Beauty Queen Of Leenane). Martin has brought an extreme cinematic influence to traditional Irish theatre,” says Flynn. This is the third play Decadent Theatre has brought to the Everyman in the past year.


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