The first sign to any true Martin McDonagh fan that you’re in for a world of disappointment with the current staging of THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE at the Baxter Theatre is the Lord of the Dance style opening music, which sets the tone for a light-hearted romp instead of a delectably gloomy dark comedy.
This psychological thriller with dark comedic undertones centres around the life of Maureen, an unmarried 40-year-old woman who begrudgingly cares for her ailing, sharp-tongued mother, Mag, while still yearning to find her happily ever after. When two brothers (Pato and Ray) enter into the equation, the tension in the mother-daughter relationship stands exposed like a raw nerve.
Any staging of THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE calls for a clear understanding of the required balance to be struck between the comedic, sad and violent elements of the play. As soon as one part outweighs the other, the imbalance robs you of the impact of McDonagh’s masterful writing. His plays move and stir an audience if the recipe of his vision is respected to its core. Anything less is a theatrical crime.
Unfortunately, in the How Now Brown Cow staging of THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, the psychodrama elements that run through the brilliantly crafted text seem to have been lost on director Charmaine Weir-Smith, who has effectively turned McDonagh’s masterpiece into a sit-com soap-opera, sacrificing that required balance in favour of the overtly funny.
Even where McDonagh incorporates humorous moments into his work it’s usually qualified, vicious comedy. Without the required balance of elements, the comedy you’re left with robs you of the style that is quintessentially McDonagh. As such, the moments of violence in the current staging are unearned and left me unmoved with not a hint of sadness, rendering the true purpose behind the play a nullity.
Mag, who should be a quietly manipulative woman in her seventies, is portrayed by Jennifer Steyn as closer to an old eighty-five or the victim of a stroke (I’m still hedging my bets); she looked to be one beat away from adding a knee-slap for comedic effect to emphasise her gag lines.
Such overacting is the order of the day, with roaming Irish accents that at times veer offensively close to St Patrick’s Day parade leprechaun, with the biggest offender here being Sven Ruygrok as Ray –that’s truly painful for me to say as I generally adore Ruygrok’s performances.
The only moment that showed any sign of a hint of respect to the story that should be told is the one where Maureen’s love interest, Pato (Bryan Hiles) takes a pause (under a very obviously placed spotlight, otherwise how is an audience supposed to deduce there's a contextual change at play?) to verbalise a letter that ultimately holds the power to turn Maureen’s flimsily held-together sanity on its head.
Sadly, the character of Maureen (Julie-Anne McDowell) enters the scene with frantic energy from the start leaving no room for subtlety or vulnerability in the character, countering any possible build up to moments of overt violence. No tension can be palpable if tension is never proven present through juxtaposed calm; the resulting violence therefore means nothing.
The performers are all committed to their roles, as the audiences is made painfully aware by all the hard-work acting on display. Yet, I fear they aren’t committed to the tone of the script, but rather to the gathering of as many laughs as they can without any regard to the darkness that should provide shelter to guilt-riddled nervous giggles. A script by the Mischief Theatre Company, whom I love, would have served that entertainment purpose better than McDonagh’s THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, which is now lying butchered on the Baxter floor.
The generally starkly lit stage (with lighting design by Denis Hutchinson) highlights rather than conceals the fact that the set would be better served in a more intimate theatre space, as the play currently calls the grand scale Pam Golding Theatre at the Baxter home. The draping used to fill the gaps in size appears to have been a rushed job. Although the set has clearly been designed by a skilled hand (Greg King), the aesthetic comes across as Hobbit-like pantomime hovel rather than disheveled Irish abode: Cartoonishly fake big rocks form the walled backdrop to otherwise realistic set dressing, which results in a conflicting design identity. It’s also rather baffling how one character can come in from the rain absolutely dry, while another (following seconds later) looks to be resembling a drowned mouse with muddy shoes that leave no trace. I’m left confused by many of the choices at play.
In an interview about the type of theatre he would want, McDonagh said the following:
“I guess I’ve accepted that theatre is never going to be edgy in the way I want it to be. It’s too expensive for a start. And, the audience seems to be complicit in the dullness. It’s like going to a fancy meal in a fancy restaurant with the attitude that, I’m here and I’ve paid the money so I’m going to enjoy it even though it tastes like shite.”
I’m actually broken by the idea that an award-winning South African production has succeeded in turning a classic McDonagh into something that invites the audience to be complicit in the dullness of it all. I’m shattered. But I will be in the minority on this one, for sure, because many people will forgive much for good old instant laughs sans the earned comedic darkness and stunning gloom-filled tension that the play is originally known for and billed as. I now understand more than ever why McDonagh is a writer who believes that writers should direct their own work: Too much gets lost in interpretative translation between the page and the stage.
If you are well acquainted with the theatrical works of McDonagh (or even just his big screen creations), chances are you will leave the theatre disappointed by the apparent lack of understanding and respect for the tone and execution of a great text.
However, if your plans to see THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE have nothing to do with your McDonagh groupie status, and you’re simply in the mood for some comedy, then you’ll probably leave the theatre having had a fairly pleasant evening and unscarred by the “funny” story of the crazy broad who gets into farm house brawls with her semi-senescent mother in the hills of Connemara.
Me? I departed the theatre in shocked silence, and gradually started going through all the stages of grief on the drive home. It may take me some time to get over the loss of what could have been such a brilliant moment in South African theatre, but for now, as part of my recovery process, I will spend the next few days reading McDonagh’s Hangmen, while crying into my copy of The Pillowman.
The How Now Brown Cow presented THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE is onstage at the Baxter Theatre until 19 August 2023. Tickets are available online through Webtickets.
How Now Brown Cow and the Baxter Theatre are proud to support Vintage With Love during the season in the Pam Golding Theatre. Patrons can bring their pre-loved clothing to place in the donation bins in the foyer ahead of the performance of THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE.