McDonagh’s Irish Gothic

Early rehearsal for Beauty Queen, with Gabriel Bergmoser and Melanie Rowe.

Early rehearsal for Beauty Queen, with Gabriel Bergmoser and Melanie Rowe.

Melbournians will be treated to a macabre tragi-comedy set in the wilds of Connemara. It is Martin McDonagh’s first play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996). I’ve seen it twice in Melbourne, but it is Williamstown Little Theatre, one of the premier non-professional theatre companies, that will mount it beginning on 29 June.

I talked today to the Director, Ellis Ebell, and the actor who plays the older woman, Mag, in the play, today, Shirley Sydenham, and they agreed that the themes of mother/daughter conflict, and conflict between the ambitious young and the co-dependent elder, travel across cultures, but that some features of the play were distinctively Irish and could only be set there. Playing opposite Mag in the role of the daughter is Melanie Rowe. The challenging features of this role are playing deeply revengeful behaviour, and sexual hunger which also doubles as intense provocation to the mother. It is indeed a challenging role, and I have vivid memories of Pamela Rabe performing it. The roles of Pato (Gabriel Bergmoser) and Ray (Bevan Uren) are another pair of foils

Re-reading the play, I was struck by how it speaks to Playboy of the Western World, written almost a century earlier, and brings its issues of tough conflict between the generations into a more modern focus. It is far darker and less romantic than Playboy but has the same intensity of dark laughter at emotions that also elicit pity and pathos.

My sense is that it will speak strongly to the current generation of those who were forced out of Ireland for work, and a measure of excitement that is lacking in rural Ireland. It was first performed in 1996 and seems to reference the ’80s generation who left, and certainly predates the Celtic Tiger. In this play, the only way up is out, and out is not a guaranteed successful track, as Maureen discovers when she finds Irish migrants in the UK at the mercy of the same racism that plagues Caribbean and African migrants. This is a subject McDonagh knows first hand being London-born of Irish parents.

Another feature of the play’s modernity that is intriguing is how it deals with women’s sexuality, and how it shows the increasing marginalisation of the clergy. Shirley Sydenham pointed out that the only use the characters in the play have for the clergy is to buy cars cheaply from them, and noted that the priest’s name was not even securely known to his parishioners. Is it Walsh or Welch?

Director Ellis Ebell is more intrigued by the psychological penetration of the play than by its violence and both he and the actors are interested to find motivations for the extreme behaviours that both generations engage in: what are the costs of staying in a claustrophobic community where there is little to sustain hope and interest? Why do they so torment each other? What pleasure does each character derive from mutual torment?

Williamstown’s tiny stage is well suited to the set David Dare is building for the production, and the sense of enclosure will be made very strong by a much lower beamed ceiling.

This is a production that promises much. We don’t get a lot of opportunities to see the first rank of contemporary Irish writers, and McDonagh is in that class.

The play runs from 27 June- 13 July. Book online
 or phone 9885 9678. I would strongly urge people with an interest in tough-minded theatre not to miss this play.


Frances is on the Editorial team of Tinteán, and has a longstanding interest in theatre.