The Leenane three

Mic Moroney discovers Martin McDonagh's trilogy of treasures
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The Independent Culture
After Druids' blistering Playboy of the Western World and their iconic Bailegangaire, it was almost as if Garry Hynse had Dolly-cloned a brand new stage Irish monster in 27-year-old playwright Martin McDonagh and his The Beauty Queen of Leenane. On one level, McDonagh's is a hilariously contemporary Connemara, littered with the trash culture of Kimberley biscuits, lumpy Complan and Take a Break magazine, yet Beauty Queen slots neatly into the old tradition: great flights of lyrical language, veined with lamentation; planting us firmly back into another blighted, rural, peat- stained kitchen; its characters stagnating in some dark, decaying past.

But you'll sit up when you see it alongside McDonagh's two new plays, packaged as The Leenane Trilogy, which maps out more of the same demented Connemara of the imagination. Weaned on an old-style emigre Irish Culture and lots of television - McDonagh grew up, and still lives in Camberwell - the result is like a macabre, moral Tom & Jerry cartoon: a colourful surreal Wild West of Ireland, populated by outlaw hillbillies doomed to family murder or desolate suicide. Yet all pitched at a perception-altering satiric level.

The Beauty Queen stands up very well to a second viewing, with its complex equation of interdependency between the 40-year-old virgin (another harrowing performance from Marie Mullen) straining against the burden of her lazy, vindictively self-preserving mother (again, Anna Manahan). The two new plays have the same elements; niggling familial irritations that escalate into homicide; the acid Gaelic patois of "Bitteens" and "gasrs", charged up by McDonagh's own metaphors in the same musical idiom. But where harsh poignancy was to the fore in The Beauty Queen, it is now skewed into a comedy of insult and injury between amoral stage-creatures, themselves satirical top-spins on Irish theatrical stereotypes.

It's a long time since I've seen company founder, Mick Lally, enjoying a role so much as in A Skull in Connemara. He plays the local grave digger who buried his wife through his own drunk-driving, having to ride out his grief against the local belief that it was murder. After discovering that his wife's remains are missing from the cemetery, his secret job of pulverising the bones and skulls of dead parishioners (as a prelude to disposal in the lake) inflates into a crazed scenario of homicidal drunkenness. It'll shake you to the core while keeping you howling with laughter, particularly at David Wilmot's final bloodstained reappearance - a flailing kick, of course, at the Playboy .

The Lonesome West kicks off in the same Deliverance-style fashion with a tale of two murderous bachelor brothers. Coleman (the faded, knuckle- hard scuzzy cowboy of Maeliosa Stafford) has murdered his father, while his dank miserly brother Valene (a convulsively repellent Brian F O'Byrne) has blackmailed his entire inheritance from him. The unbreakable focus of the two actors makes a little masterpiece of the scene in which a forgiveness- game explodes into sickening onstage violence. The plotline is characterised by similar semiotic delirium: the bewildered, maudlin young priest, Father Walsh, or Welsh (no one in the parish gets his name right) delving his hands into a bowl of hot, molten plastic figurines of saints; and rejecting seduction by the "innocent" young poltin-seller (Dawn Bradfield), baring the bold character-name of Girleen.

Inaccurately portraying the mindset of a rural Irish backwater, McDonagh breaks dangerously through many politically-correct barriers, but happily this joint Royal Court / Druid production doesn't miss a trick in backing him to the hilt. O'Byrne provides the most constantly magnetic of the performances, but it's an excellent cast, pulled into a taught ensemble by Hynse's lean, hard, direction. The painterly set by Francis O'Connor is also spot-on: replete with the constant pathetic fallacy of rain outside the window of the dingy kitchen, itself peppered with sight-gags.

It would be idiotic to wax too profound about the plays as ambassadorial redefinitions of the Irish psyche. Yet, despite the black irony of the representations, they all carry a profound and disturbing undertow. For all the comedy of popular-culture references and the outlandish plot lines, the major screws are turned by solid, sustained stage-drama that mangles your sensibilities through a bizarre range of emotions. There is a synergistic effect to seeing them all in a bunch (I highly recommend the Trilogy Day). Partly because of the cross-references, they pan out into a powerfully stated off-beat world-view. In fact, Leenane is not a trilogy at all but a potentially sprawling satiric universe - reminiscent of the endlessly unravelling murder mysteries of Twin Peaks, tinged with the relentless serial iconoclasm of Father Ted. McDonagh indulges in fast, hilariously hard-boiled and exciting genre writing - yet that genre while erupting out of another, is utterly original and his ownn

The Leenane Trilogy, in rep, Town Hall Theatre, Galway, to 28 June, 00353 91 569777. Trilogy performed on Saturdays. Similar season at the Royal Court from July 17 to Sept 13 (0171-565 5000)

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