REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★★
The Beauty Queen of Leenane was the debut play of acclaimed Irish-British playwriter Martin McDonagh, who wrote and directed the hit 2017 film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. First performed in Galway, Ireland in 1996, it first appeared in Sydney in a production by Sydney Theatre Company in 1999. Twenty years later, the first part of McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy is closing STC’s current season, the production directed by Paige Rattray and playing at the Roslyn Packer Theatre.
Set in the small village of Leenane on Ireland’s west coast, this is the story of Maureen Folan (Yael Stone), and her 70-year-old mother, Mag (Noni Hazlehurst), who live together in a small cottage. The relationship between mother and daughter is venomous. Maureen is profoundly unhappy with her life and longs to get out of the remote village, where her only regular company is her mother. But Mag is importunate, demanding Maureen’s attention because of her apparent health issues, so respite from her life sentence in Leenane is unlikely to come any time soon.
But things start to take a positive turn when a local boy, Ray Dooley (Shiv Palekar), arrives at the Folan home with an invitation for both to attend a party for his older brother, Pato (Hamish Michael), who has been working in London as a labourer. Mag conspires to keep Maureen in the dark about the party, but that’s unsuccessful and Maureen attends, where she and Pato hit it off. At the end of the night, they go back to Maureen’s home and have a sexual encounter.
While the outlook finally looks promising for Maureen, Mag is unable to bear the thought of anything that could see her daughter leave home. She will do whatever she believes is necessary to prevent that from occurring, even if it means ruining Maureen’s chance at a happier life.
McDonagh’s text is superbly written, with a brilliant seam of black comedy through it to balance the bleakness of the story. It sharply examines family relationships and particularly the codependence between mother and daughter and the role reversal that can happen in parent-child relationships. It also provokes questions around mental health issues and where the boundaries of real or imagined grievance lie when there is mental illness.
Rattray has taken the McDonagh classic and crafted an outstanding production, which instantly absorbs us in the events of the Folan household and keeps us deeply invested in the lives of its occupants. While we laugh, it ultimately packs a tremendous emotional punch. Truly, this is the kind of production that reminds you what it is that makes live theatre such a wonderful, visceral and powerful experience.
Playing a critical role in making this experience so dynamic is its exceptional cast. Stone joined the production to replace Rebel Wilson, yet it feels as though she has been preparing to take on this role for a long time, as she completely inhabits the character of Maureen. She is at once demoralised and sympathetic and utterly terrifying, exhausted by life. This character is so credibly interpreted by Stone.
Similarly, Hazlehurst, in her first STC production in 13 years, delivers a masterly performance as Mag. Her character isn’t a one-note bully, but instead is portrayed as a complex woman who is obviously irascible, self-centred and manipulative but who, despite her cruelty, is capable of evoking pathos (at one moment, in particular, where she becomes excited by the suggestion of a drive to a nearby town, revealing the tedium and smallness in her own life). She is venal in her efforts to thwart her daughter’s efforts to leave but, given the indicia we have of Maureen’s mental fragility, it suggests a kernel of motherly love.
In their supporting roles, Palekar and Michael are both excellent. Palekar’s Ray is manic and bellicose, providing much of the show’s light relief, while Michael’s Pato is charismatic. His character feels connected to Maureen, helping us to believe he represents a genuine hope of change.
Designer Renée Mulder’s beautiful realisation of the Folans’ cottage shows remarkable attention to detail. We’re given a view of the intense, intimate and collapsing space shared by the two women. The set also includes the exterior of the home, built into the side of a hill, assisting to convey the Folans’ disconnection both physically and figuratively from the rest of the world. Paul Jackson’s lighting is also significant here, with the projection of dark blue against a cyclorama exaggerating the impression of isolation.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a glorious end to STC’s 2019 season. This is a first-class staging of a first-rate play, performed by a cast of the finest actors. Don’t miss it!
Photo credit: Brett Boardman
THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay
Dates: Playing now until 21 December 2019
Tickets: Phone the box office on (02) 9250 1777 or visit sydneytheatre.com.au