The Beauty Queen of Leenane

We went to see The Beauty Queen of Leenane last weekend. Things Unseen Theatre put it on at The Church in the Middle of the Block, and will perform it again next weekend. Several of my theatre friends are involved at Things Unseen. I lost my program, but Russell Stiles directed, Tom Liszka probably built the set, and Valerie Stratton played Mag Folan – a tiresome old woman. I don’t know the rest of the cast personally, but Alyssa Baker played Mag’s spinster daughter Maureen, Bill Benson played Maureen’s love interest Pato Dooley, and Luke Archey played Pato’s younger brother Ray.

I found out afterwards that Martin McDonagh released this play in 1996. During the play it was hard to place Leenane in time. We didn’t pick up on clues about Australian soap operas and popular songs that would have meant something to Irish audiences. The kitchen appliances in the dingy rural cottage could have dated from the seventies, but the single lever faucet and compact telly seemed much more recent.

I was tempted to interpret Mag as a symbol of the old Ireland (A Terrible Beauty) and Maureen a symbol of some newer, but still flawed Republic. Expat Pato was visiting from England on his way to taking a job in the US. He had to work elsewhere, so the setting was likely before the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger years (1995 – 2000). The pre-Tiger Ireland would have discarded old traditions and mores (like Maureen), and would have been struggling to modernize (like Maureen), but would have still been hoping for something better to happen (like Maureen).

I toured Ireland in 1983, and a local bragged, “We have poor in Ireland, but we have no poverty.” He meant that a lot of people without steady jobs nevertheless had nice houses thanks to government assistance. From the vantage of the early nineties it may well have seemed that the current Ireland was just as bleak and confused as the older rural one had been, and certain parallels between Mag and Maureen are made very clear by the end of the play.

We watched a youtube clip of a few scenes from an Irish production afterwards, and could hardly understand a word of dialogue. At Things Unseen, the cast sounded Irish enough that I had to listen carefully and my non-Irish wife was flummoxed at first. Valerie’s Mag veered between needy and despicable. Ms Baker’s Maureen was very attractive, much younger than forty, and wasn’t aged by makeup, but she managed to be the frustrated spinster anyway. Mr Benson’s Pato was the well-meaning, lonely guy and you could believe him wanting Maureen despite her history. Mr Archey’s Ray was responsible for making us notice several key props and kept us in suspense with the second one admirably.

This is no convoluted mystery. The writing of the play usually makes it Waterford clear what is going to happen next and who is going to do it. We just watch aghast while the characters actually do those things to each other … and themselves. There is one big twist, though. So go see it if you get a chance. And bring your mother.

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