THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE by Martin McDonagh
originally published 1996
This was my sixth Martin McDonagh play and actually my third and final read from his Leenane trilogy (despite it being the first Leenane installment – but these plays are only very loosely connected and you do not need to read them in order). Here I was thinking that McDonagh couldn’t possibly shock me any more than he has in the past – I do consider myself familiar enough with his style of black comedy that my continued reading of his plays has more to do with their comfortable familiarity than with unearthing a facet of his writing that I feel I haven’t already uncovered.
But what I hadn’t counted on with The Beauty Queen of Leenane was how immeasurably sad it was going to be. For once McDonagh’s characters aren’t memorable for their immorality as much as for how pitiable they are, and though the dialogue is as sharp and irreverent as ever, the humor in this one doesn’t hit its mark quite as much as the more somber undercurrents do. Isolation, wasted youth, mental illness, and domestic claustrophobia are all at the heart of this deceptively dark story about an elderly mother and middle aged daughter living in a cottage together in rural Ireland. I think it shows that this is McDonagh’s first play – his craft of dark comedy doesn’t feel sufficiently honed and there are some dissonant elements that don’t fully come together, but my god is this haunting.
As the end of the year draws nearer and people are scrambling to finish their 2017 Goodreads challenges, I thought I’d offer my biggest tip for boosting my reading count when I’m behind: reading plays. I love theatre, and while the experience of seeing shows live can be incomparable, not everyone has the resources and opportunities to do it regularly. I find that reading play scripts is actually a pretty underrated way to engage with the material – it can be just as stimulating to watch these scenes unfold in your head just like you’re reading a novel. And, a huge bonus – they’re short! I usually read play scripts in one sitting. So if you’re behind in your reading challenge and you need some ideas, look no further!
If you’re interesting in the classics and Greek tragedies, I’d recommend: Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, which is one of my all-time favorites – even if you think you know this story, the tension and heightened tragedy in Sophocles’ play will catch you off guard – or Antigone by Sophocles, The Bacchae by Euripides, Medea by Euripides, or The Oresteia by Aeschylus. Full list of Greek theatre that I’ve read can be found here. I’m particularly fond of the translations by Anne Carson (especially if you’re looking for something a bit more modern and experimental) and Robert Fagles, but there are plenty of phenomenal translators out there.
If you’re interested in early modern to modern classics, I’d recommend: King Lear, Macbeth, and/or Hamlet by Shakespeare – I’m not a huge Shakespeare aficionado, but these are some of my favorites that I’ve read. Fast forward a couple of centuries – A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen is a fascinating proto-feminist reflection on a woman’s role in society and in her own home. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde is an absolute riot about mistaken identities in British high society. Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose is a fascinating meditation on the U.S. judicial system. Vieux Carré and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale are brilliant plays by Tennessee Williams that bring the Deep South to life. A View from the Bridge and The Crucible by Arthur Miller deal with themes of identity and power – one takes place in 20th century Brooklyn and the other around the Salem Witch Trials. Translations by Brian Friel is an extremely underrated Irish play about language, classics, and English colonization.
If you’re interested in contemporary plays, I’d recommend: Anything by Martin McDonagh (playwright/director responsible for the films In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) if you like really twisted black humor, namely, The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and The Cripple of Inishmaan. For a reflection on gender and sexuality, try: Angels in America by Tony Kushner, Venus in Fur by David Ives, or Body Awareness by Annie Baker. For a thrilling one-man show about the Trojan war, try An Iliad by Lisa Peterson & Denis O’Hare. For a riveting romance-drama with a significant age gap between the protagonists, try Skylight by David Hare.
Or, if you don’t trust my opinions, try some of these that I haven’t read yet but which have come highly recommended to me: Peter and Alice or Red by John Logan, Posh by Laura Wade (which was the basis of the film adaptation The Riot Club), Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, The Good Person of Szechwan by Bertolt Brecht, Faith Healer by Brian Friel, Faust: First Part by Goethe, In the Red and Brown Water by Tarell Alvin McCraney (who cowrote the screenplay for Moonlight), The Last Wife by Kate Hennig, Anatomy of a Suicide by Alice Birch, Trifles by Susan Glaspell, Sweat by Lynn Nottage, The Flick by Annie Baker, Indecent by Paula Vogel, Equus by Peter Scaffer, Arcadia by Tom Stoppard.
Good luck with your reading challenges, friends! Also – what’s everyone’s favorite play? Comment and let me know!
On Thursday, I got very exciting news. I found out that one of the best theatre productions I have had the pleasure of seeing – Maria Friedman’s 2012-13 London production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along – has randomly been revived for a brief stint in Boston at the Huntington Theatre Company. And not only that, but two of the three leads – Mark Umbers (Frank) and Damian Humbley (Charley) – would be reprising their roles from London. I was already going to be in Hartford this weekend to see the Les Miserables tour, so I figured, a detour to Boston can’t hurt, right? So that same night my friends and I bought tickets for the Sunday matinee of Merrily, which is the best spontaneous decision I have made in a long time.
I love this production with all my heart. So does Sondheim. He was quoted as saying “This production of Merrily We Roll Along is not only the best I’ve seen, but one of those rare instances where casting, direction, and show come together in perfect combination, resulting in the classic ideal of the sum being greater than the parts.” I mean… I’m not sure what I can say on top of that, but I’ll do my best.
Merrily We Roll Along follows the story of three friends – Frank, Charley, and Mary – told in a backwards timeline. Once inseparable, these three friends begin the story no longer on speaking terms, and over the course of the musical which spans twenty years, we slowly uncover everything that went wrong between them. One recurring line is “how did you get to be here, what was the moment?” – this is a story about changing over time, growing apart from people, having to live with the decisions you’ve made. Though it begins with an upbeat jazzy overture, this is the kind of story that gets under your skin and slowly but surely rips your heart out.
This production is an example of near-perfect casting. The core trio work flawlessly together – they’re somehow able to manufacture the kind of easy chemistry that only comes from having known people for twenty years. Eden Espinosa (known for having played Elphaba in Wicked) shines as the cynical and grounded Mary Flynn. Even though she hadn’t worked with Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley in London, her performance fit this production like a glove. Other noteworthy newcomers were Aimee Doherty as the glamorous and seductive Gussie, and Jennifer Ellis as Frank’s ex-wife Beth.
But it’s Mark Umbers and Damian Humbley that stand out to me, if only because this was my second opportunity to witness these stunning performances, and both seemed to pick up exactly where they left off with these roles back in 2013. With the role of Charles Kringas, Damian Humbley strikes the right balance of humility and impatience – he’s consistently engaging to watch and his rendition of “Franklin Shepard, Inc” is an absolute tour de force.
Though this story is ostensibly about these three friends, it’s Franklin Shepard at the center – charismatic, charming, talented, fickle, sell-out Frank – and Mark Umbers carries off his performance with aplomb. The reverse journey this character goes on is chronicled with such subtlety and sincerity – his posture and mannerisms slightly changing with each new stage of his life – that you find yourself believing for a second that this 44-year-old man is actually the 20-year-old that he plays by the end of the musical. It’s a performance that’s wholly captivating in every sense of the word. It’s the one that’s stayed with me the most since I saw this production in June 2013, and seeing him work his magic on stage again yesterday was a phenomenal experience.
Though the music with its recurring motifs drives this story forward (or backward, I guess), I don’t think you need to be a musical aficionado to connect with it. If you’re someone who appreciates good performances and a story that’s both entertaining and deeply unsettling, I promise it is worth the trek to Boston. I cannot recommend this production highly enough. I only wish it were playing longer!
Also – thank you to Steph and Chelsea for being crazy enough to go along with my last minute Boston detour. I’m so glad you guys also loved it.
Merrily We Roll Along is playing through Sunday, October 15 at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. Buy tickets here – there are excellent discounts available for students and anyone under 35!
Yesterday I was reading Interesting Literature’s 10 of the Best Plays by Women Dramatists (a fantastic list!) and I came to the really depressing realization that I’ve only ever read one play written by a woman (An Iliad by Lisa Peterson). At first I’m thinking ‘that’s not possible, is it?’ because I read quite a lot of plays, but after combing through my list a few times, I realized that it’s sadly the truth. 39/58 of the books I’ve read so far this year have been by women – that’s a trend I’d like to keep up.
So, I’m here to ask for recommendations of your favorite plays written by women! The only two on my list so far are Posh by Laura Wade and The Last Wife by Kate Hennig. I’m open to all genres, time periods, etc. Thanks!