Martin McDonagh's  disturbingly dark comedy, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, is coming to 45downstairs later this month as part of The Leenane Trilogy of plays.  Fresh from the new Angelina Jolie directed film Unbroken, actor Dylan Watson  joins Noni Hazlehurst and Michala Banas in the Irish village of Leenane.

Watson plays Ray Dooley who he describes as a young troublemaker. Ray lives under the shadow of his brother Pato who is a bit of a catch in the small town they live in. Ray has many aspiration but, unlike his brother, he seems locked into the force that is Leenane and is ultimately destined to live out his days in the kind of harrowing psychological pit that this small Irish town may symbolize.

"Like most people Ray is a bit of a dichotomy in that despite wanting desperately to be respected by his community, his actions (or lack thereof) and his childish behaviour prevent him from ever being seen as such," Watson explains. " He is reduced to a messenger, running around town for his brother and whoever else in a time where phones – if owned – were seldom used. In the play we see Ray being little more than an errand boy which is both a source of and a wound to his pride."

"Ray symbolises a disillusioned, desensitised youth. He talks of his aspirations, which are far from grand (moving to London, learning to drive); but deep down his lack of focus, sense of entitlement and his expectation of instant gratification doom him to a life of mediocrity. Education was such a strong factor in determining whether someone was able to escape; unfortunately for Ray intelligence is not his strong suit. Despite being written 20 years ago I think Ray’s fate rings true for our younger generations, especially those living in isolated areas."

McDonagh plays are not for the faint hearted so be warned. His plays are brutal and deceptive – just when you think you've caught your breath McDonagh skilfully inserts the knife again.  Beauty Queen is a play about isolation, says Watson. Each of the characters is isolated in some way; most obviously with Mag and Maureen but also with Pato and Ray. I am interested to learn how this relates to an Australian audience – Watson explains:

"Martin explores how toxic isolation can be; despite living in a beautiful part of the world, the isolation does things to the minds of these people. These are people who are lucky to travel 40 miles from home in their entire lifetime. I think there’s something Australians can connect to with that; we’re on an isolated continent unlike most of the world. And although travel is far easier nowadays, we are seeing a social isolation dawn on us because of technology; the strange way in which programs like Facebook actually make it harder for people to connect in person. These plays offer great insight into the psyche of people who are, in one way or another, very alone. I think we can all relate to that."

Watson says that during rehearsals the company talked a lot about how reduced these people are. "The mother-daughter relationship which is a primary focus in the play (not to mention an incredibly complex theme all women can relate to) is reduced to vindictiveness and petty rivalry, as are most relationships in the Leenane Trilogy. At one point Pato remarks, “You can’t kick a cow in Leenane without someone holding a grudge twenty year.” There is a deep-seated anger in these people that presents itself in the form of these grudges and passive-aggressive attitudes. And I think that resonates with everyone. Anger is probably the least socially acceptable emotion so while we put on a smile and act politely with people externally, internally we may have very different opinions. It is this internalisation that results in the toxicity between many of the characters in McDonagh’s plays."

Despite's its harrowing suffocation and overt cruelty, The Beauty Queen of Leenane does offer some beauty and redemption for Watson who describes the play as darkly comedic – like life.

"There are so many beautiful moments – and though there is sadness I think there’s a lot of beauty in that melancholy too. It’s very touching. The fumbling, quiet intimacy between Pato and Maureen is really wonderful to watch. You can’t help but want the best for them but there is a deep fear that it may never come to be; but the privilege of being there, watching this thing blossom, is quite a sacred moment."

"For Ray, the telly is the primary object of beauty in his life. There’s something endearing about the small moments he has with Mag watching telly. Outside of that Ray’s life is pretty barren and routine. I wouldn’t say he really has an eye (or vocabulary) for beauty. I think that’s what makes him so interesting to watch; his nearly blatant disregard for things most people would be precious around. He has constant cringe-worthy moments."

"Of course the irony of the play is that it’s set in one of the most beautiful places in the world. This part of Ireland is such old land steeped in history. Do yourself a favour and google Leenane – it’s really a sight to behold. Better yet go there!"

Watson stars alongside some brilliant and established Australian talent and tells me the biggest challenge he had to overcome was working with such experienced actors. "Noni has been a nationally recognised actor since before I was even born, and Michala has been working in television for many years. For me it was like going from a local athletics race to a one-on-one with Usain Bolt. Suddenly you find yourself questioning your talent and your ability. But they have been so, so supportive and encouraging and once I began to really find Ray I felt like more of a colleague and less like an intern! It’s funny how you can really do a disservice to yourself by choosing to be intimidated, which I feel I did at the beginning. Once I realized that was my own doing and no-one else’s, I was able to get back on track with my work and start really exploring."

The Leenane Trilogy is the love child of the performance group, The Kin Collective – Michala Banas, Tom Barton, Keith Brockett, Jason Chatfield, Mark Diaco, Marg Downey, Dan Hamil, Linc Hasler, Noni Hazelhurst and Laura Maitland – who meet at a Larry Moss Masterclass a few years ago. Watson  was at the first Larry Moss Masterclass which gave birth to the Kin Collective and considers himself lucky enough to have taken part in the same Masterclass the following year where he found the commitment, passion and methodology from fellow actors  a huge inspiration.

"As such, I’ve wanted to work with the Kin gang since first seeing them; we have shared ideas about what makes incredible theatre. Honouring the writer, being true to the authenticity of the character and getting out of our own way as artists are pillars for me and these attitudes are fostered and encouraged within the collective. Not to mention the fact that McDonagh is one of my favourite playwrights. It’s a huge honour to have been offered the role and I hope it’s the beginning of many collaborations."

Watson also found himself 'lucky enough' to be involved in a new film, Unbroken,  directed by Angelina Jolie.

"The film is a true story about Louis Zamperini, an Italian American marathon runner who joined the US Air Force to fight the Japanese during World War II," Watson explains. " His plane crashes during a search and rescue mission; he and two other crew are left stranded in the Pacific Ocean. They survive for 47 days – twice as long as anyone had previously – before being picked up by the Japanese Navy, who then throw him and his one surviving crewman in a POW camp. He survives two years of being starved, diseased and brutally beaten daily before returning home. I play the guy who crashes the plane! Unfortunately I perish in the crash but not before redeeming myself (thankfully)."

"This was one of those auditions I just didn’t think about after I did it. I had a couple of other big auditions and this was in between the two so I really just made a few choices, started rolling and went for it. As fate would have it, nothing happened with the other two but I was offered this role without even doing a callback!"

"Angie was so, so wonderful. Everyone asks what she’s like and there’s really not a great deal to say. She is a very lovely, welcoming, perfectly normal person and a generous and patient director. There was no entourage, she didn’t treat herself any differently; she was just another crew member. It was really encouraging to see that people at the highest level of this profession can be so warm and inviting. I met Brad too and again he was very warm and down to earth guy. A lovely, genuine couple."

"What was more daunting for me was playing opposite Domhnall Gleeson! His screen career is really taking off now and in 2006 he was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Davie, a character in another of McDonagh’s plays The Lieutenant of Inishmore. But again, he was absolutely lovely. Had great chats about theatre with him and Finn Wittrock who had recently done Death of a Salesman with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The cast were all very inviting and great to work with."

The Beauty Queen of Leenane was nominated for six Tony awards and won four – it is poignant and insightful as well as brooding, dark and cruelly  vicious. It has teeth and is not afraid to bite. 

Watson tells me McDonagh is the only playwright since Shakespeare  to have four plays professionally produced in one season in London. – a fine accomplishment, indeed!

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Thu 29 – Sun 31 May