There is no beauty pageant in Leenane. 

There is little beauty left in the barren landscape of Connemara, Ireland, nor in its deprived and battered people. Martin McDonagh’s play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, tears away the romantic shroud of the Emerald Isle.

Pamela Rabe in The Beauty Queen of LeenaneThe said beauty queen (Pamela Rabe) is a 40 year old virgin with a shadowy past, who lives with her harridan mother (Maggie Kirkpatrick OK) in an isolated cottage in an isolated village in Galway. She might have been called a spinster years ago.

Directed with sensitivity and humour by Garry Hynes from the Druid Theatre of Galway, this is a funny, tragic piece telling a personal story with the backdrop of a decimated land. This first of McDonagh’s award-winning Leenane Trilogy, written when he was 26, has the wry wit of the Irish as well as their violent passion, Catholic superstition, guilt and manipulation.

The tragedy of Ireland is not only its occupation by its colonial neighbours who determined to eliminate the Irish language, culture, pride and to take even their last potatoes. It is also the fact that dire poverty forced Ireland’s youth to depart in droves seeking work in England, America and Australia.

Rabe is magnetic as the tragic Maureen Folan, trapped not only in her cottage with her mother but inside her confused and frightened head. Rabe captures the despair and frustration of this erratic, disturbed woman. A mere glimmer of hope destroyed by her mother’s selfishness is enough to send her haywire.

Pamela Rabe in The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Kirkpatrick as Mag Folan, embodies superbly the physical and emotional burden which Maureen endures. She is dependent, lazy and vindictive, resenting and sabotaging any hint of joy for her daughter in case it leaves her without a slave. Their attachment owes more to duty and compulsion than to love.

Mother drives Maureen to distraction. She drives us to the very brink ourselves. When Pato Dooley, played with sympathy and naivete by Greg Stone, returns from England and wants to take Maureen to Boston, all goes horribly wrong.

This play may not be the masterpiece it is purported to be but it is a damn good yarn. It evokes a powerful emotional response and a potent sense of tragedy and anguish.

One textual problem is that significant character traits are omitted or obscured early in the play in order to allow later plot twists to be a surprise. But works as theatre.

Review by Kate Herbert

By Martin McDonagh; Melbourne Theatre Company

At Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne until April 1, 2000

Photos by Tracy Schramm