Wednesday 18 July 2018

Beauty Queen of Leenane is either wholly sardonic or a sorry sum of rural Irish affairs
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : For perspective, it doesn't hurt to know that in an October 2004 overview by of English/Irish l'enfant terrible playwright Martin McDonagh, McDonagh remarks of his own work : "It's brilliant, and if you don't like it -- you're wrong!" (McDonagh's most recent reach in that direction was his movie script of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.) 

Meanwhile he set his early plays in Galway in northwest Eire, where his parents originally hailed from. Grim, harrowing, claustrophobic, violent, his works are redolent of Mamet, Scorsese, and James Dickey (he of "Deliverance" pedigree). Designed to be wholly in-your-face, McDonagh claims his examination of the human condition is self-explanatory : his reliance on sardonic, warring family characters merely reveals and exposes the dark underbody of rural Ireland. Interestingly, though, the town of Leenane in Connemara is a place he only visited on summer holidays, he never lived there. His roots are in Camberwell, a district south of London reportedly home "to some of London's most elegant and well-preserved Georgian houses" according to Wiki. 

It is said his first play The Beauty Queen of Leenane took him just eight days to write. He was but 27. It is the first in a late-90's blitz of scripts known as The Galway Trilogy. Its third offering The Lonesome West was produced by Pacific Theatre in November 2017. Whereas the latter features two brothers in a Freudian war of wills after they kill their father, Beauty Queen finds 70-year-old mother Mag (rhymes with "nag") who is being ministered to by her 40-year-old spinster daughter who betimes is given to emotional implosion and sadism.

Daughter Maureen (Kirsten Slenning) stands above her bitter and controlling mother Mag (Tanja Dixon-Warren) : their expressions betray all the lilt and joy of their Leenane life together.
Photo credit : Derek Fu 

How it's all put together : Daughter Maureen is the youngest of three sisters. She was released from a "nut house" [sic] in London after a mental breakdown a couple decades back only on the condition her mother become her legal guardian and she, by extension, her mother's keeper. Disconnected from the comforting cheats of urban centres, Leenane is a town that Fr. Welsh in Lonesome West lamented : "Seems God has no jurisdiction in this town. I'd have to murder half me feckin' relatives to live here!"

Boring repetitive day-to-day routines. Constant rehearsal of personal grievances and spite. Slights and interferences that smack of will and intention. Jealous that her virgin daughter might at last go on a date with a local construction worker home from London named Pato Dooley, Mag declares "Young girls should not be out gallivanting with fellas...!" Maureen shrills : "Arsing me around, eh? Interfering with my life again? Isn't it enough I've had to be on beck and call for you every day for the past twenty year? Is it one evening out you begrudge me?"

What the script brings to the stage : McDonagh's rural Irish milieu and the constant cabin fever people suffer there are often equated to the social realism of alienated UK urban young men known as "kitchen sink drama". Perhaps the link is made here because in Beauty Queen mother Mag has a particularly disgusting daily habit of emptying her bedpan contents into the kitchen sink. Their hovel thus reeks of urine. No wonder dreams founder here. 

T.v. has replaced social gatherings, people rattle about in their heads in dismal mutual isolation. Small acts of cruelty seem the characters' only escape. Except that Pato longs to take Maureen to USA with him. Despite his failure to launch their first night together, he still considers her the beauty queen of Leenane. To Boston he's headed. Home of the Kennedy brothers, a cheap paint-by-numbers litho of whom graces the farmhouse entrance wall. But when Mag destroys Pato's plaintive invitation in the fireplace, the play's ineluctable climax is foretold. 

Redux observation. Englishman McDonagh is privileged, no doubt, obviously well-heeled and well-schooled. When he appeared to slag his parents' countrymen by showing them up as belligerent hicks, London polite society went strange. They ostracized him. Vilified him. Called him nasty names and disparaged his talent.

In last November's review of the sibling script The Lonesome West I observed as follows about McDonagh's Leenane : 

"No question, this is a brand of rural Eire that's nowhere identifiable on Trip Advisor, Yelp or AirBnb sites. It has none of the charm of the Irish Rovers chumminess we for decades have associated with the place. Which is precisely why, of course, playwright McDonagh was persona non grata among the liberal London intelligentsia. For their part, the homegrown Galway folk roar'd their butts off according to writer Sean O'Hagan that he reported in his Guardian interviews with McDonagh. Today's locals weren't buying the bucolic blighted cheery peasantry doing jigs and singing gustily while flailing guitars and mandolins. They saw winks of truth from McDonagh and guffawed mightily in their Thanks be!"

Production values that contributed to the show : Jericho's typical thrust stage facing its 20 X 20 set is perfect for the single farmhouse scene on display. A side-view midway along was most intriguing. Pure functional Sally Ann recyclables with spindle rocker, chrome / Formica kitchen set and cylinder woodburning heater. Javier Sotres' sound design with pounding rain squalls punctuated by squawky a.m. radio of old Irish favourites set precisely the right tones. Regrettably the auditorium blower above the centre top row all but drowned out much of the early dialogue. Efforts to get it turned off made by various audience members obviously failed.

Acting pin-spots : Each character had moments that not only convinced but compelled. While Kirsten Slenning betrayed a daughter gone mad, lit. & fig., her precise diction was never projected forcibly or loudly enough to allow full appreciation of her acting talent. Mom Mag by Tanja Dixon-Warren was projection personified, by contrast, exuding a quiet and persistent malevolence toward daughter Maureen that quite chilled.

As Pato Dooley, Ashley O'Connell's soliloquy to start Act 2 -- a reading of the letter he wrote to Maureen asking her to join him in Boston -- was utterly poignant and gripping.

Younger brother Ray (Francis Winter) came into his own in the play's final scenes : his "Feck! Feck! Feck! Feck! Feck! Feck! Feck!" frustration at Maureen's tardy arrival to be handed Pato's letter was foreshadowing for certain, particularly when he added the quatrain of "I don't want to be here, I don't want to be here, I don't want to be here, I don't want to be here...!"

Together the individual acting parts when broken out were perhaps greater than the whole, but taken together created many fine moments. 

Who gonna like : Small-stage psychodrama has always been a favourite of mine. Others who prefer less visceral stuff will be waved off by McDonagh's harsh cut at Leenane's self-exiled pathetics -- a different kind of "basket of deplorables" but no less so. Director Kathleen Duborg hand-picked capable performers all, but the sound deficits noted above interfered and detracted from a very well-intentioned effort.

Still and all, that Martin McDonagh is said to have stitched this script together in just eight hours as a first effort may be an apocryphal tale or outright fake news. But believing it makes the evening's outing quite worth the effort to see such talent afoot.

Particulars : Produced by Ensemble Theatre Company.  [In repertory with Dark Road and A Few Good Men]. Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street.  On until August 15.  Tickets & schedule from the company website  Run-time 120 minutes, including intermission.  

Production team : Script by Martin McDonagh. Director Kathleen Duborg.  Assistant Director Shelby Bushnell.  Scenic Design Stephanie Wong.  Lighting Designer Patrick J. Smith.  Costume Designer Julie White.  Sound Designer Javier Sotres.  Stage Manager Samantha Paras. Fight Director Richard Meen.  Vocal Coach Erin Ormond.  Dialect Coach Brian C. Parkinson.  Assistant Stage Manager Li Zhou.  Props Josina de Bree.

Performers :  Tanja Dixon-Warren (Mag Folan).  Ashley O'Connell (Pato Dooley).  Kirsten Slenning (Maureen Folan). Francis Winter (Ray Dooley).  

Addendum :  Ensemble Theatre Company, in its sixth Vancouver summer repertory season, describes itself thus : "Vancouver-based Ensemble Theatre Company is dedicated to producing accessible and relevant theatre. The company sees theatre as an essential cultural force in leading and framing dialogue on current issues, and takes artistically innovative approaches to classics as well as mounting challenging modern and contemporary plays. The non-profit arts organization is devoted to nurturing both artists and audiences, creating a place of inclusion and a forum for ideas and dialogue."

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