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The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Sydney Theatre Company presents THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, by Martin McDonagh, in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney. 23rd November - 21st December

THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE was the debut play, from the Irish/English writer Martin McDonagh. There followed a plethora of stunning successful companions to his stage repertoire which audiences looked keenly to see. In Sydney we were impressed with mainstage productions of THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE (1996), THE CRIPPLE OF INNISHMAAN (1997), THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE (2001). Elsewhere in the Fringe theatres, A SKULL IN CONNEMARA (1997), THE LONESOME WEST (1997), THE PILLOWMAN (2003), and regular revivals of the Mainstage exhibits arrived. And of course his film repertoire: IN BRUGES (2008), SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012) and THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), has enjoyed kudos from all his fans. In 1997, McDonagh had four plays on the professional stage simultaneously – popular, indeed.

Part of the attraction to Mr McDonagh’s work is his old-fashioned storytelling skill creating vitally alive characters involved in classic narrative mode, glittering with a dark sense of humour and a thrilling Hitchcock-like instinct for dramatic tension with a glowering undertow of menace/violence – a dominating vibration of our time. His plays are gripping in a very old-fashioned way – full of moments of held breaths and gasps of shock, alongside a ‘vicious’ sense of humour, that can draw a generous laughter from its audience – and so are always awfully anticipated. That they sometimes have a serious observation of the Troubles of Ireland and the social traumatic consequences of that era on the ordinary people is also a pay-off for some of the audience who may be in need to justify their salacious pleasure.

THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, set in the desolate countryside of Connemara, in a decrepit home on the top of a hill, invites us into the world of Mag Folan (Noni Hazlehurst) in her declining years under the care of her youngest daughter, Maureen (Yael Stone). The tensions between Mother and Daughter are stretched to breaking points of need and frustration. From outside, a hope of escape is offered to Maureen by a sensitive boyo, Pato (Hamish Michael), who is wanting to take her away to a new life in Boston, messaged through his ‘thunk-headed’ brother, Ray Dooley (Shiv Palekar).

This production of THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, is by far and away the BEST work that the STC has given its Sydney audiences for years. Their subscribers must be giving a sigh of relief: at last!

What gives this work that accolade from me is the sense that Director, Paige Rattray, set out to honestly reveal the work of Martin McDonagh without any flourishes of intellectual showing-off – i.e. drawing attention to the hand in charge (the Director as auteur). So much of that kind of artistic behaviour has been endured by audiences on the STC stages (and other theatres in Sydney) for some time – many, many years now. This production has the old-fashioned tried and true confidence in Martin McDonagh and his writing. Respecting the writer as the key to the source/sauce of a great production and then religiously, tirelessly to set out to solve with her collaborators the ways and means to do just that. The result is a prodigious joy to receive.

The Design, Set and Costume, by Renee Mulder creates a detail of naturalism that is challenging and thrilling. The external of this bleak ‘house’, is exposed as we enter the auditorium, on top of a hill, that is a ‘home’ for some in this Irish wilderness. It is lit against the pallid sky cloth signalling an over whelming sense of isolation and loneliness. It feels cold, kind of forbidding. It revolves to show an interior meticulously grotesque in the detail of the poverty of care and disabling spirit that has ruined any possibility that a happy way of life would be possible there. The details are calamitous in their presence. It has an olfactory impact that almost emanates an actual stench of rot and neglect that seems to waft out to us to enflame our endowing imaginations. It is a place that none of us would want to enter and if we did in reality, probably with a handkerchief across our noses and mouth to prevent waves of nausea and vomit in our mouths. Like voyeurs we peer into this space, from our seats, carefully breathing to filter away our anguish for the inhabitants that may live there. The Lighting Design by Paul Jackson supports this aesthetic with a sure eye to woo us into the atmosphere of the environs. Subtly, Steve Francis provides Composition and a Sound Design that also impresses subliminally our ears to complement the visuals with anticipation of a tragedy, a sadness, for the decay of a civilisation as represented by a Family of this community.

Then, with a keen eye for what is needed, Ms Rattray, invites Noni Hazelhurst to create, to inhabit the wreck of Mag, a mother, a woman for whom life has given nothing but disappointment, who has been reduced to being a barely existing carcass simmering in the ‘soup’ of a life-long disappointment, in a filthy colour faded dressing gown almost completely marooned – crippled – in a well worn armchair in front of an unsound television that mostly entertains with visions of Australian soap operas – perhaps, the only sunshine in this world of glum – how ironic a poetic image to be given to us Ozzy, Ozzy, Ozzies in 2019! (For after all, How Great is Australia? How great Mr Morrison?)

Home from shopping, climbing and slipping on the ragged dampened path, on her journey up the hill to the interior of this ‘home’, the youngest daughter and the only one willing to be around, to look after her mother, Maureen, created, owned, by Yael Stone, almost sadistically bright in spirit, enters with food that is scantily a support for sustenance, but is a habitual need of her regularity that myopically Mag demands. The Maureen of the text is written to be in her 40’s – and this is a Directorial decision that is different from the writer’s intention – is cast here with an actor who is definitely in her late 20’s or early 30’s. On reflection, having seen this play with much older actors as Maureen (one of them being Pamela Rabe at the STC, a few years ago – 1996), the visual impact of having a younger Maureen, who is in the physical bloom of youth, of flaunted ‘busty’ firmness, bubbling with the spiritual enthusiasm of someone who can still contemplate the real possibility that a good life may come, the play’s tragedy of her true circumstances becomes even more powerful and oppressive. It is a canny choice by Director, Rattray, for Ms Stone is robustly right in the way she presents and in all that she does with her natural gifts.

It is also a remarkable chemical mix/choice, for these two actors who seem to be at a creative place that allows, commands them, to be explosively dangerous in their investigation of their women, and fearlessly, it seemed also joyously too, willing to provoke each other to levels of exposure that emanates a heat of truth that is scarifying in its intensities and seeming improvisational ‘in the moment’ energies and alertnesses. Ms Hazelhurst, seems to be, at this time, in a place of remarkable creativity, her work in MOTHER at Belvoir, heralding a flowering of courage and skill, that is confirmed with this performance, that her audiences can celebrate in – and anticipate more from. While Ms Stone, who has been away working in American television, returns to the Sydney stage with a transformational confidence that is astonishing in its detailed and courageous choices. The emotional revelations of this young woman, Maureen, across a wide landscape of contrasted possibilities, of immense peaks and despairing valleys is carefully crafted by Ms Stone, to allow us to empathise even at Maureen’s most vengeful. Her performance is magnificent, tragically wrought.

The visceral chemistry between these two actors is personally invested and further confirmed with a great sense of the ironic comedy of the situation that Mr McDonagh wickedly, famously, seeds through all his writing works. And both these women are not shy of ‘going for it’,rather, they appear to genuinely relish it with great appetite, to then contrast it brilliantly with the density of the darkness of the petty but tremendous acts of vengeful violence that both these characters welter each other with.

That these two principal roles are so immaculately created is more than worth the price of the ticket.

But, Ms Rattray has invited and drawn from Hamish Michael in a role that could be sentimental and cliche ridden, that of Pato – the ‘good’ guy in the scenario of this play – to create a warm and three dimensional man, that is never more sure than in the solo reading of a letter – a (horrible) writer’s conceit in structure, a risk that Mr McDonagh takes, that for me demonstrates his cheeky ego and confidence, that makes him, contemporaneously, unique in his output – and is so powerfully a hopeful vision of goodness that we all hope for a happy ending for Maureen’s aspirations. It is through the identification that Mr Michael’s brings to his moments in the play that pushes us to belief. It is a ‘miracle’ of performance and skill.

Too, then in the function of the well worn cliche of the ‘messenger’ (think of all those messengers and messages that lubricate the action of those Greek tragedies and in Shakespeare’s famous oeuvre, in both the comic and tragic plays.) Shiv Palekar, as Ray, is delightfully hilarious as an ill-educated youth, a ruin of a boy-man, the confection of his daily poverty stricken culture, that creates some unbearable tensions in the play with his character’s recklessness and innocently arrogant physical power. All the characteristics of nervous ticks and childish observations of a man of this kind that Mr Palekar creates, adds to the brew of the play’s almost unbearable exposure of humanity, with all’s its tensions, comic and tragic and all of it so carelessly engaged in by Ray Dooley in Connemara. The consequences of his actions are part of his horrible ignorance at being so self-oriented/pre occupied – a sadly comic illustration of a modern life. A wonder filled contribution from Mr Palekar.

Play, Design, Acting and the Direction are all engaged collaboratively on the STC stage to serve the writer Martin McDonagh and this production is a ‘rain’ worth welcoming after the relative ‘drought’ of good work at the STC. Sad to say that THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE is an exceptional piece of craft that creates art, that is the usual norm on the STC stages. (It might be fun to see HANGNMEN, a McDonagh play not yet seen in Sydney,)

Do go.

P.S. Ms Rattray is scheduled to direct one of the GREAT plays, Terrence Rattigan’s Chekovian-like Masterpiece, THE DEEP BLUE SEA, next year. Rattigan is now in a positive re-evaluation mode in the British theatre after years of denigration and neglect, historically beginning with the arrival of the British realists, the ‘angry young men’,led by LOOK BACK IN ANGER (1956), by John Osborne, and the iconoclastic Kenneth Tynan (sometimes a cruelly bombastic critic, who was as much interested in promoting himself as he was in critiquing). One hopes that Ms Rattray has the same interrogative care with every detail that Mr Rattigan has put in pen onto the published page – every ‘mark’ should be deeply considered. He is, among many other theatrical virtues, a master of edited clues and artistic restraint, that will reveal with scrutiny the layers of opportunity he provides for imaginative craftsmen to create.Ms Rattray and her collaborators have done this on Mr McDonagh’s play -and I look forward to that discipline executed on THE DEEP BLUE SEA. With Marta Dussldorp, playing the lead, it seems to be in promising hands.