The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh. Sydney Theatre Company, directed by Cristabel Sved. Wharf 2, February 22 – March 13, 2010. Reviewed March 9.
When I first saw The Beauty Queen of Leenane (STC, reviewed in The Canberra Times, August 16, 2000) I found it difficult to believe in the daughter Maureen. It had seemed to me that the play was too neatly constructed, that Maureen’s sexual delusions were a gratuitous device on the playwright’s part, and “too much is made of the traditional comic Irish loquaciousness”.
In this production Mandy McElhinney makes Maureen’s sexual need explicit, showing how the dominance of her mother (which her sisters refuse to accept) results in this daughter’s extremes of behaviour in the real world and of fantasy in her inner world. I guess it’s this quality of clarity that we should expect of the Sydney Theatre Company, making the travelling time and expense worthwhile.
There are references in the dialogue to Australian soaps on the “telly”, like Neighbours and Home and Away, the only entertainment available for these people stuck in poverty on a hill surrounded by mud in Leenane, a village with no part to play in a modern economy. These shows in fantasy at least open up the possibility of somewhere else to go, out of the rain, into sunshine forever. Ironically though, for Australians, they are also seen as cultural invaders, destroying the true Irish traditions.
But I found myself being reminded of Mother and Son, where the surface humour relied on the underlying determination of the aged to keep control of their lives. I even wondered if Garry McDonald might not have felt rather like Maureen after his “mother” Ruth Cracknell died in 2002. Did it mean relief and freedom from his role, or entrenched depression knowing that reality is insubstantial and unreliable? In other words, I found more depth and complexity in this production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane than I had seen previously.
Some commentators, including this director in her program note, think McDonagh, “a 2nd generation Irishman living in England … parodies, exaggerates and toys with ‘Irishness’ through his ‘outsider’s’ gaze”. But I have to say, at least in this production, that Cristabel Sved has made the play come close to the best of Irish plays, JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. McDonagh’s Maureen and Pato cannot quite match Pegeen and Christy, but his play is not a parody, even though Maureen uses a poker and Christy a loy. Both plays call a spade a spade, and this is the value of this STC production.
It is still true that we are left with somewhat sentimental sadness at the conclusion of Beauty Queen, as Maureen becomes so much like her mother. Playboy is much tougher on us, because we know that Pegeen knows she must face the real world alone, while Maureen can retreat into delusion.
However, I can confidently conclude that STC has made a justifiable success of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, with performances fully booked at the end of its run. With the key players Judi Farr, Mandy McElhinney and the always spot-on Darren Gilshenan, as well as a very effective relative newcomer Eamon Farren, success is not surprising but gratefully appreciated.