Dean Cartmel, Mark Diaco and James O'Connell in the Kin Collective's The Lonesome West. Image by Lachlan Woods.
The Kin Collective is currently staging Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s The Leenane Trilogy at fortyfivedownstairs. The three plays are set in the first half of the 1990s in the district of Connemara, a small community on the west coast of Ireland.
The trilogy tackles themes of co-dependency, alienation, escape and faith. McDonough (best known for the film, In Bruges) explores how dependency can engender hatred and cruelty and lead to degradation of the human condition until its humanity is almost unrecognisable. In this world, escape comes only with alcohol (clung to and coveted like a like a life-giving elixir), migration away from homeland and family, or more tragically, through mental breakdown or death.
Body excretions (urine is a recurring element) are used as a weapon in all three plays reminding us of the debasement of these effects and, ultimately, their toxicity to those around them.
The first impression the audience has when sitting down to the trilogy is the set. It is immediately recognisable as a domestic scene, although strangely lacking in warmth. It transitions from kitchen to lounge room, always maintaining a sense of drabness, despair and neglect, with religious iconography scattered throughout.
The first in the trilogy is The Beauty Queen of Leenane, arguably the strongest of the three, with fine performances by the entire cast but particularly from the leads: Noni Hazlehurst, as the poisonous, manipulative ailing mother, Mag Folan, and Michala Banas, who plays Mag Folan’s 40 year-old daughter and appears trapped in her role as her mother’s carer.
The women inhabit their characters so convincingly that we feel we are present in their kitchen, a cloying, uncomfortable but fascinating experience. Linc Hasler as Pato Dooley is charming as Maureen’s love interest and, while sometimes excruciating, their chemistry works beautifully. Dylan Watson is hilarious as the youth, Ray Dooley, and is consistently impressive.
The writing in The Beauty Queen is clean, succinct and compelling, and the actors, in this instance, are utterly convincing. It is difficult to imagine a better production of this play.
A Skull in Connemara is the second offering, repeating the character types of impudent youth–Mairtin Hanlon (Tom Barton)–and toxic parasitic older woman–Mary Johnny Rafferty (Marg Downey)–from the first play. Christopher Bunworth plays Mick Dowd, a man employed to exhume remains at the local cemetery who is haunted by the death of his wife in a car accident in which he was the (drunk) driver, while Pete Reid plays asthmatic policeman, Thomas Hanlon.
There is something less satisfying about this play, particularly after the perfection of the first. There is a lack of subtlety in the playing of Mairtin Hanlon, a pivotal role, and even in Thomas Hanlon, bringing an (unwelcome) air of slapstick to the show. Although the script is certainly comedic, I'm not taken in by the humour of this play; it seems too heavy-handed and the action seems just too far-fetched. I'm not convinced to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride. The performances of Marg Downey and Christopher Bunworth certainly strengthen what is a largely underwhelming experience.
The third play, The Lonesome West, again set in the familiar domestic environment, is, by contrast, truly exquisite in both script and performance. Relying heavily on the skills of the performers and direction to deliver comic and dramatic punches, it is unnerving in its capacity to take the audience from hilarity to despair in the briefest of periods.
The Lonesome West is, at its core, about two co-dependent brothers, Valene (Mark Diaco) and Coleman Connor (James O’Connell), whose lives are dominated by their constant feuding and bickering. Add to this a priest, Father Welsh (Dean Cartmel), who is plagued by daily crises of faith, and wise-cracking Girleen (Laura Maitland), who is plagued by her own humanity, and it makes for compelling drama and razor-sharp wit. Sometimes we laugh uncomfortably.
There is a feeling that the last scene could be more succinct but overall, it is outstanding, particularly the dynamic between the brothers, the rhythm of their dialogue almost faultless. Laura Maitland’s depiction of Girleen is also beautifully rendered.
Overall The Leenane Trilogy is a great writing achievement and is largely done a great service by the Kin Collective whose production, direction and performance are skilled and insightful. The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West are theatre at its best.
*Spectators can attend individual performances of the trilogy from Tues-Sat or see the entire trilogy on 'trilogy Sundays'.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane - 4 ½ out of 5 stars
A Skull in Connemarra - 3 out of 5 stars
The Lonesome West - 4 out of 5 stars
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Cast: Noni Hazlehurst, Michala Banas, Linc Hasler, Dylan Watson
Director: Declan Eames
Assistant Director: Jo Booth
A Skull in Connemara
Cast: Marg Downey, Chris Bunworth, Tom Barton, Pete Reid
Director: David Cameron
Assistant Director: Oran Franco
The Lonesome West
Cast: Mark Diaco, Laura Maitland, James O’Connell, Dean Cartmel
Director: John Banas
Assistant Director: Kade Greenland
Production Manager: Keith Brockett
Set and Costume Designer: Casey-Scott Corless
Design Assistant: Alexandra Hiller
Lighting Designer: Kris Chainey
Sound Designer: Nick McCorriston
Stage Manager: Kiaya Edwards
fortyfivedownstairs, Flinders Lane, Melbourne
28 May – 15 June