Misery, turmoil, lies, more misery, and a bit of onstage torture thrown in for good measure. The Beauty Queen of Leenane is not a happy play. In fact, Martin McDonagh’s script is so unrelenting in its misery that you are left unsure who you are supposed to empathise with. It is also quite, quite gripping, and scattered with enough (blackly) comic moments to keep the audience absorbed.
I physically recoiled at two points (I won’t spoil the story – you’ll know which points if you go and see it), so completely absorbing was the story. The cast of four are all superlative, playing out the claustrophobic nuances of rural life, trapped in relationships from the unfulfilling to the downright unhealthy. Both Joe Hill-Gibbons’s direction and McDonagh’s script are subtle and highly intelligent: we are shown the ins and outs of Maureen (Derbhle Crotty) and Mag’s (Rosaleen Lineham) mutually destructive relationship in the first five minutes of stage time.
Hill-Gibbons keeps his audience guessing; both mother (Mag) and daughter (Maureen) are morally ambiguous, although both thoroughly unpleasant. Watching Mag’s malicious attempts to sabotage Maureen’s life and hopes, we begin to sympathise with Crotty’s down-trodden Maureen. Then the power balance subtly shifts, and we are left wincing at her callousness and cruelty. It is not comfortable veiwing, and it gets bleaker as the evening progresses.
Ultz’s clever set was detailed in the extreme, perfectly capturing the suffocating, decaying lives being played out in rural Leenane. The wistfulness that Mag and Maureen feel when the other two characters (Frank Laverty and Johnny Ward) leave their run-down dwelling is palpable, as they are left alone with each other and their bad memories.
The script has echoes of Beckett – the trapped figures in one space, circling each other, sniping and grumbling. But here it is not physical barriers that keep them inside or together, but emotional ties that bind and drag them down. At the end of the play, you are left unsure who to believe, what is real and what is fantasy. There is no redemption here, no chance of escape: Hill-Gibbons emphasises that this cycle will not be broken, that Maureen is bound to turn into Mag, that hope is short-lived and fleeting. Bleak, but brilliant.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is currently on tour before returning to the Young Vic Theatre. For more information and tickets see the website here.