A new voice for Ireland

Garry (nee Gearoidin) Hynes may have left the Abbey and her leather jacket behind, but her roots are still deep in Irish theatrical peat. By Clare Bayley
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It takes a particular sort of person who, given the lovely Irish name of Gearoidin, elects to abbreviate it to Garry. But as a Galway girl, Garry Hynes had defied most of the stereotypes of the blushing colleen during her theatrical career. In 1975 she set up Druid, the first professional theatre company outside of Dublin, and the sight of this 5ft leather-clad hell-raiser quickly became a feature on the landscape of Irish drama. Yet, while her staging of The Colleen Bawn went to Manchester last year, her work has not been seen in London since 1989. Now she is back with a double vengeance: Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane in the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs, and Marina Carr's Portia Coughlan in the main house in May.

Hynes's reputation precedes her. In 1991, she was appointed artistic director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin - the first woman to be entrusted with that Holy Grail of Irish cultural life, but the sixth director in only seven years. Hynes went in with all guns blazing, knowing that only through a radical shake-up could the institution move on.

At Druid, Hynes owed her success partly to the audience's lack of expectations: "There was no professional theatre in Galway in 1975, so their taste and ours developed together. We had no shadows leaning over our shoulders." At the Abbey, it was a different story: once, when she was directing The Plough and the Stars, she asked for a prop to be brought up from the store and was horrified to be presented with the very same one used in the original 1926 production.

She refused to be tied by tradition, but her tactics divided Dublin's theatre establishment. English critics loved what they saw, but the Irish press was appalled. Two years and many confrontations later, she bowed out, bloodied. Last week, though, she was appointed an associate director of the Royal Court, where her iconoclastic tendencies will, one hopes, be welcomed rather than resisted.

Hynes's work so often has a stark, violent quality - and press cuttings paint a portrait of such furious determination - that the tiny, softly- spoken 42-year-old who turns up is the last thing you'd expect. (The leather jacket has come off too, replaced by an almost demure pale blue top.)

The Beauty Queen of Leenane drew an ecstatic response when it launched Galway's new theatre. It is set in a Connemara kitchen, complete with peat-burning stove - the kind of setting that is almost a cliche of Irish drama, though the 25-year-old Martin McDonagh here offers a startlingly different take on stock situations.

As the drama opens, middle-aged, unmarried Maureen and her elderly mother co-exist with a latent hostility towards one another that periodically bubbles to the surface. Then Pato arrives, fresh from London, where he has gone to make a better life, home only briefly for a party to honour Americanised relatives.

"At the heart of Beauty Queen lies a terrible rootlessness, for all that it's set in this recognisable, rooted reality," explains Hynes. "Pato says, 'When it's there I am' - meaning London - 'it's here I wish I was, of course. But when it's here I am... it isn't there I want to be. But I know it isn't here I want to be either.' McDonagh is writing about the standard experiences of immigration, yet he's a Londoner, and only a writer in that situation could have written that." And to the purists who might complain that the language used is not authentically Connemara, she replies: "It's not intended as such. McDonagh is creating a theatrical language, not a piece of documentary."

Her second production this season, Marina Carr's Portia Coughlan, is also written in an invented dialect, a phonetic transcription of the accent of the area in which Carr grew up. By contrast with McDonagh's claustrophobic, naturalistic Beauty Queen, however, Portia Coughlan is a poetic and wide- ranging portrait of a suburban woman tormented by the memory of the twin brother who drowned himself.

In different ways, the two plays complement Hynes's visceral approach. "By using language as she does, Carr sets up an awkwardness, almost a baroqueness, that is actually rather important. Up until the 1960s, the Irish peasant was the soul of Irish national identity, since the cities were about colonisation. In 30 years, Dublin has jumped to being the European capital with the highest population of under-25s. But it's only in the past five to 10 years that we've started to see contemporary urban social reality represented on stage."

If there's a theatrical language being born that expresses the new realities of both urban and rural Irish experience, Hynes is its midwife. And if she too has had to leave her home town in order to work, at least, wherever she travels, she brings her roots with her.

n 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' previews from tomorrow at the Royal Court Upstairs (0171-730 1745)