ARTS : Gift of the gab

Martin McDonagh was born and bred in south London. So how come he's got two plays set in Ireland in prime West End sites, with another seven ready to roll? Furthermore, what right has someone in their mid- twenties to be so prolific, so assured and, well, so good? By Sarah Hemming
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When The Beauty Queen of Leenane first opened at the Royal Court in March this year, the theatre world was agog. The production sold out, it won excellent notices - "one of the most exhilarating debuts in years" trumpeted The Sunday Times - and it was astonishingly assured for a first play. No gaucheness, no shaky dialogue, no tub thumping; this was a beautifully crafted piece that gripped you from first to last with its combination of wicked black comedy and sadness. Set in Connemara, it oozed the despair and frustration of people trapped in small-town Ireland. But who was the author of this tragicomedy that spoke so vividly of Irish rural misery?

The answer came as something of a shock. Not only was Martin McDonagh a mere 25 years old, he was born and bred in south London, didn't come from a literary family and had not so much as opened a volume of classical Irish drama.

Tonight, the play, richer by three awards (the George Devine for Most Promising Playwright, the Writers' Circle Award for Best Play and, as announced last Friday, the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright) and fresh from a sell-out tour of Ireland (where people chased from venue to venue in the hope of snapping up a ticket), returns to the Royal Court, this time to the main stage at its temporary West End home. Meanwhile, McDonagh's second play - another savagely funny and tender Irish tale - is in rehearsal at the National Theatre. Nicholas Hytner is directing and Richard Eyre, the theatre's artistic director, has created a space in the repertoire especially to accommodate it. By next month, this new kid on the block will have plays on two of our most prestigious stages.

It is the stuff of playwright's dreams and Martin McDonagh is enjoying his success. He breezes into the Royal Court beautifully groomed - he is the only playwright I have ever interviewed who was wearing a suit - and, spying the photographer, darts into the Gents to check his hair. He clearly regards press interviews as something of a necessary evil and makes statements the breathtaking confidence of which make your hair stand on end: "I can't stand those mealy-mouthed writers who offer up a play and say `It's not perfect, but see what you think of it.' I think you should say: `It's brilliant and if you don't like it, you're wrong.' "

All this would be insufferable if he did not also come over as charming, obliging and attractively self-mocking - "I'm such a vain bugger," he says. He is far more likeable than the bravado suggests; even, one suspects, a little nervy about the whole shenanigans.

He wrote The Beauty Queen of Leenane in just eight days - a fact that he shrugs off ("a scene a day; it isn't all that hard") - with one session for rewrites "to add the biscuit jokes" (a brand of tasteless Irish biscuits provides a nice running gag). "I write very quickly and a lot of the time it's like copying down a conversation between two people in my head," he says. He may dismiss the speed, but it is astonishing when you consider how deep the play goes. A bleak, black comedy, it focuses on an embittered 40-year-old spinster and her cantankerous old mother. The two live in a damp, ugly cottage in the west of Ireland and torment each other to great comic effect. But when the daughter takes up with a man, the play turns adeptly from comedy to tragedy.

McDonagh says he started with the relationship between the two women: "I just had those two basic characters in my head - the mother-daughter sniping relationship" and allowed the story to unfold from there.

But why set it in Ireland? McDonagh's parents are Irish, but he has never been over the Irish Sea for longer than a few weeks' holiday. Yet Ireland is the setting for five of the seven plays he has written so far. Moreover, it is not urban Ireland that he writes about, but the remote communities in the rainwashed West that are the province of writers like Synge. The Cripple of Innishmaan, the play for the National, is set on an island off the west coast.

"The two English plays I did try to write were too close to home, I think," he says. "I tried to find something that wouldn't have any kind of influences and that wouldn't repeat anybody else's dialogue style. I hadn't read any Irish plays at that time, so I just tried to think about how my uncles spoke."

It was the language that gave him the key to his own creativity. "In Connemara and Galway, the natural dialogue style is to invert sentences and use strange inflections," he explains. "Of course, my stuff is a heightening of that, but there is a core strangeness of speech, certainly in Galway. So as soon as I started writing the Irish stuff, it seemed like I was writing something that nobody else was doing. I could do completely my own thing."

Setting his plays at a distance, he found, gave him freedom: "It's definitely easier, to write about things from a distance - especially when you just want to tell stories, which is all I want to do. It leaves the entire focus on your story and not on your politics, social life, sexuality, class, creed, whatever..."

But Garry Hynes, artistic director of the Galway-based Druid theatre company that co-produced the show with the Royal Court, suggests that because McDonagh filters Ireland through his own poetic licence his plays, paradoxically, give much more powerful expression to the communities he portrays than might come from a writer closer to home. "The Ireland he encounters provokes his imagination," says Hynes. "So he does not just recreate some sort of observed reality - there's a chemistry that takes place and he creates an imagined world."

For the Irish journalist Fintan O'Toole, McDonagh's work pinpoints something essential about contemporary Irishness. The play touches on the Irish diaspora, through the character of Pato, who is all set to emigrate to the States and who bemoans the fact that he doesn't feel he belongs anywhere. For O'Toole, this is highly significant, as is the fact that McDonagh writes from a distant perspective about the imaginary Ireland that is part of his heritage. In a programme note for The Beauty Queen, O'Toole suggests that the play "deals truthfully with the way a culture characterised by emigration exists on a continual fault-line between reality and imagination".

McDonagh shies away from this sort of analysis, preferring to allow others to speculate. "I'll go along with it, if only because it makes me seem more important than I actually am," he says, smiling. Equally, he says, he never set out to make a comment on Irish theatre tradition, although many critics noted the way his play echoed the classics - particularly Synge - while cleverly upending stock situations.

McDonagh is not the type to get involved in lit-crit, but he is, clearly, a natural storyteller. As a child, he says, he was not interested in writing, but had "massive daydreams". It was only after leaving school that he started to write his ideas down, and since then he has been extraordinarily prolific.

Among his outpourings are 22 radio plays, all of which were rejected. While he accepts, reluctantly, that his period in the wilderness might have helped him hone his talent, it is also the reason for his cultivated self-confidence. "As soon as I came to writing stage plays everything fell into place. I'd got so pissed off, I became much more arrogant about what I was doing and the arrogance led to being a better writer, I think... I think too many people are happy with some kind of vague mediocrity.

I think people should stay at home and keep going until it's perfect, and if it's not, stay at home some more."

McDonagh knows all about staying at home. He doesn't seem to mind the monastic life-style of the writer - "I always liked just eating crisps all day and never going out" - and in fact he quite misses it, now that he is leading the giddy life of sudden success: "I haven't seen Neighbours for weeks!"

The graft paid off: he now has seven plays on the stocks and another two in his head. He points out that this has helped him avoid the second- play syndrome: "It's good to have seven to pick your second play from." And while his pile of plays filters through, he hopes to turn his attention to writing screenplays.

But as we speak, he is preparing to fly off to Leenane, where the Irish tour will come to an end. "I hope there will be a riot," he says, gleefully. "I'd love to start a riot"n

`The Beauty Queen of Leenane' is at the Royal Court Downstairs, St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (0171-565 5000); `The Cripple of Innishmaan' runs at the Royal National Theatre, London SE1 (0171-928 2252) from 12 Dec