Maverick Life

THEATRE REVIEW

A darkly comic tale exposing a savage relationship between mother and daughter

A darkly comic tale exposing a savage relationship between mother and daughter
Jennifer Steyn in 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane'. (Photo: Claude Barnardo)

In ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’, playwright Martin McDonagh transforms a broken old lady into a cruel monster while her brittle daughter steadily becomes the mother she detests.

Jennifer Steyn’s latest cantankerous character is an Irish mother named Mag. She ranks among the grouchiest, grumpiest, most unlikeable characters ever to appear on the Baxter’s main stage. And, of course, her toxic dialogue and ugly grimaces earn her many of the many laughs incited by Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane

The play, first staged in 1996, is a riveting black comedy that unfolds into full-scale psychological warfare that teeters on the brink of a nightmare. Its deployment of language — the lilt of Irish accents, the quaint vocabulary that situates events in a timeless, unaffected countryside, plus the loopy, unhinged insults — ensures that it is in its best moments like watching an erupting volcano that you can’t back away from. 

Jennifer Steyn and Sven Ruygrok in ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’. (Photo: Brett Rubin)

If you’re familiar with McDonagh’s cinematic work (‘Seven Psychopaths’, ‘In Bruges’, or last year’s masterful ‘Banshees of Inisherin’), you’ll have noticed his knack for initially disarming audiences by deploying a thick charm offensive — seemingly likeable, slightly unusual characters who are full of endearments and whose unusual quips and quirks appeal to us with their straightforward humanity. But then, with sudden and rather brutal force, the lid comes off and we get a full-on assault, a blast of viciousness and cruelty, and language laced with malevolence and violence. From beneath those layers of simplicity, raw nerves are jangled, under-the-skin truths revealed.

Julie-Anne McDowell and Jennifer Steyn, The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Julie-Anne McDowell and Jennifer Steyn in ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’. (Photo: Brett Rubin)

In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, there’s barely a beat before we’re made aware of the kind of people we’re dealing with: they’re not charming at all. And, instead of initial quirkiness, they’re kind of immediately stripped down to reveal their true colours.

In Banshees of Inisherin, the plot device is as innocuous as the one-sided ending of a friendship that torments and infuriates a simple-minded Collin Farrell who is increasingly pushed to violence. In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, it’s a 40-year-old virgin named Maureen who unravels psychologically in the face of her mother’s verbal torture and abuse. Maureen is kept a virtual prisoner, emotionally bound to care for Mag, with her cranky disposition and poison tongue, not to mention her wonky hip, her bad gut, her injured hand, her urine infection, and her unsentimental belittling of her daughter. 

Don’t con yourself into believing that anyone’s innocent, though. Keep an eye on that sore hand and wait to see how Mag’s urine problem develops. 

Sven Ruygrok and Julie-Anne McDowell in ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’. (Photo: Brett Rubin)

McDonagh’s good at crafting menace within an environment that seems innocent, that might even appeal to our sense of folkloric bliss. That’s what he does here in this old stone cottage somewhere in a small Connemara village; rather than safe sanctuary from the rain and cold of this rural place, it’s a stifling bitterness that prevails — fertile soil for the seeds of combustible drama.

He then goes a step further by removing any opportunity for the audience to pity the detestable Mag. Instead of evoking sympathy, all her gripes and pains seem only to intensify her talent for spite. A sour, heinous old lady who slurps down mugs of lumpy Complan and chews on her oats like some kind of animal, she seems to have few reasons to exist other than to make her daughter miserable. 

And while Mag is malicious and vicious in the company of others, it’s in the moments when we see her alone that she commits her most heinous atrocities, be they burning undelivered love letters or befouling the kitchen sink.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Sven Ruygrok and Jennifer Steyn in ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’. (Photo: Brett Rubin)

While McDonagh’s ear for juicy, explosive dialogue keeps things moving at a lively pace, it’s his instinct for drama laced with threats and subliminal horror and imbued with a rhythm of steadily mounting mayhem that ultimately forces you to gasp out loud or hold your breath. While you want to imagine that it’s the stench from that befouled kitchen sink that’s metaphorically caught in your throat, ultimately there’s something far more terrifying at work — it’s not the old plumbing, but the depths of Mag’s rotten nature.

Just how far Mag is prepared to go to prevent her daughter from finding love and happiness, or from escaping the claustrophobia of their Irish home, is anybody’s guess. Steyn makes her a monster who seems capable of acting even from beyond the grave.

Bryan Hiles in ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’. (Photo: Brett Rubin)

Still, despite the cruelty of her intent, Mag’s presence will provide you with some of the best laughs you’ll experience in the theatre this year. It’s in her exchanges with a youngster named Ray, a seemingly daft neighbour who initially seems to serve merely as a messenger, that the play is at its hilarious best. While their conversations are grounded in innocuous silliness, it’s precisely when Sven Ruygrok’s Ray begins to natter that the comedy attains its most breathtaking heights. Not only does he provide flashes of insight amid a torrent of lunatic observations, but his full-body comedy — be it a brief enactment of a night’s clubbing under the influence of drugs, or his quick demo of the lethal potential of an ominous fire poker — really sets up the play’s dark humour.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Sven Ruygrok in ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’. (Photo: Brett Rubin)

Of course, McDonagh does this only to rip the rug out from under us. As the black comedy gives way to inevitable tragedy, it’s as though the play is in fact a kind of trap for its titular character, the drama designed to push her to breaking point, at which time Ray’s earlier comic interludes turn out to have been grave premonitions. 

One thing is certain, though: whether this play makes you laugh or cry, you will probably never look at any family argument in quite the same way again. DM

Directed by Charmaine Weir-Smith and starring Jennifer Steyn, Julie-Anne McDowell, Bryan Hiles and Sven Ruygrok, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is playing at the Baxter Theatre until 19 August

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