To judge from Martin McDonagh’s modern classic, first seen in Galway before transferring to the Royal Court in 1996, Leenane is a town so stagnant that a skin has congealed on its surface. Nothing changes and nothing is forgotten: ‘You can’t kick a cow in Leenane without some bastard holding a grudge for twenty years’.
The Beauty Queen of the title is Maureen Folan, a dowdy, middle-aged spinster living with her mother Mag in a remote rural outhouse with a lingering stink of urine. Their relationship is as mutually destructive as it is mutually dependent. Trapped together in the middle of nowhere, they rile each other endlessly: Mag clips her daughter’s wings by burning love-letters and playing helpless, Maureen tortures her with lumpy Complan, stale Kimberley biscuits and worse. Back and forth, they slap each another in turn, eye for eye, tooth for tooth until bruised, blind and gummy.
A one-off fling with local stud-of-sorts Pato Dooley offers Maureen the possibility of escape. Invited to join him in leaving for America, Maureen looks set to fly the nest like a fully-grown fledgling.
This being Ireland, of course, escape was never really on the cards and the problem with Beauty Queen is its pat visibility. McDonagh’s dramatic irony is thicker than Mag’s Complan. It is a play full of Ibsen’s famous hanging guns, largely because the implements of torture (hot oil, poker, Complan) are so tantalising, not to show them used would be negligent. It feels too pristinely constructed – all polish, no turd - not that it prevented the youthful first-night audience from gasping along.
McDonagh’s high-definition violence often draws lazy comparisons to Tarantino. It’s not unfair, but the image of cartoonish gore the comparison conveys is misleading. Where the two coincide is in their flirtatious relish of and flair for torture. The closest parallel is to Mr Blonde’s razor-work in Reservoir Dogs. McDonagh knows precisely which nerve-endings to brush when wriggling a finger inside a wound.
A closer counterpart, I’d argue, is Jez Butterworth. Like Butterworth’s countryside seen in Jerusalem and The Winterling, McDonagh’s world is backwardly rural but savage. But where Butterworth’s plays are crazed and stampeding bulls, McDonagh’s seems a sheep trotting obediently into the pen.
Joe Hill-Gibbons’ production is meticulous and beautifully acted, even though it goes easy on the agony. He’s too eager to move to action, meaning that we miss the Mexican stand-offs that might string out tension. Instead, decisions are snap: Derbhle Crotty’s off-kilter Maureen turns on her heels to clatter a pan of oil on the stove. There’s no psychological torment that comes from anticipation. She lacks Mr Blonde’s shuffle.
What she does brilliantly, however, is bumble. In showing off her supposed sexual conquest, she does so like a drunk bumping into walls, confident but misjudged. She mixes a crass sexiness totally in keeping with the cheap slip that barely covers her erse with a touching naivety. That provides Frank Laverty’s Pato, a good solid bloke, with all he needs to both gawp and politely avert his eyes.
But the masterstroke remains Rosaleen Linehan’s glorious Mag. The only returning cast member, Linehan has the mischief of a schoolboy scamp and the curmudgeonliness of a vicious codger – at times, she seems a female version of Pinter’s Max in The Homecoming – but beneath it all is sadness and fear. Her face folds like origami as she gurns, her tongue has a mind of its own. Sat in her rocking chair, it seems as though the house has been built around her and, when she’s finally gone, the chair keeps on rocking and rocking.