Dark Irish humour a highlight of Hong Kong Arts Festival
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is painful to watch in places but cast members say it reflects a culture used to darkness, violence and humour
The first preview performance of the latest revival of the 1996 play The Beauty Queen of Leenane was almost impossible for the cast.
“It was just extraordinary,” recalls Aaron Monaghan, 36, who plays Ray, one of the four characters, and arguably the funniest.
“It was playing in Galway [in the west of Ireland], where the play was set, and you couldn’t control them. They laughed at every line and when the big laughs happened it just went on and on – it was like a tsunami. They took the play over and you thought it’s just impossible to do the lines.”
“I never thought or heard anything like it on stage in my life,” says Marty Rea, 37, who plays the older, quieter brother, Pato.
“You felt it in your body, you were almost terrified to go out there,” he says. “It was like they were going to have the most hilarious evening of their lives and you weren’t going to mess it up.”
Which is rather strange – if The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a comedy, it is one of the darkest you’ll ever see.
Playing in Hong Kong next month, it’s the story, set in rural Galway in the mid 1990s, of a spiteful old woman, Mag, who takes out her bitterness on her daughter Maureen. And the story of Maureen, 40 and never been kissed, who takes her own bitterness out on her mother.
One day, Maureen gets an invitation to a party at a neighbour’s house – and that’s when the trouble begins.
The Tony award-winning play, by London-born Irish writer Martin McDonagh, concentrates on the awful, tiny things that people do to each other when they are stuck in lives they don’t want.In one scene in particular it is so agonising, so painful, so viciously violent, that you can hardly keep watching.
“Sometimes they shout aloud,” Monaghan says.“Once a woman called out ‘Oh Jesus. No!’ so loud. It was really hard then.
“I find I kind of corpse a tiny bit every night. It’s when Marie [Mullen, playing Mag] says about the letter ‘put it by the fire’ and I just leave it there… because every night everyone goes ‘Ooooh’. I can’t believe that doing something as simple as that gets such a reaction. I anticipate it but I’m still not used to it.”
There are a few cultural references that would be helpful for Hong Kong audiences. One is Complan, the nasty tasting porridge given to older people to help their digestion. Another is the common experience of sending music requests to a radio station, and then waiting for months to hear the dedication.
“My ma once asked for a dedication of Kenny Rogers for my da’s birthday. My da was the first one who had no interest in music. But she’d make us sit and we just listened to it for nearly a year waiting for her song to go on. It was a terrible mushy song as well,” says Rea.
Although both Rea and Monaghan were teenagers at the time, they remember clearly when the play was first performed, put on by the western Irish Druid Theatre, which has revived this modern production, and directed by Garry Hines, who is directing it again this time.
“I was living in Belfast and finishing up secondary school,” Rea says. “I remember hearing there was this Irish play that was doing incredibly well.”
“I never went to see it, but sometimes it feels like I’ve seen it, there are so many clips.”
“It was all over the country,” Monaghan agrees. “And I remember talking to people since who had seen it and said it had changed everything about Irish theatre.
“It kind of took a genre and went splat against the wall.”
The Beauty Queen of Leenane – named after something Pato shyly says to Maureen, to explain how he finds her beautiful – made it possible for what seemed like the first time to celebrate the way rural Irish speak.
It spawned many plays that followed, set in the middle of nowhere, “and having a darkness and a humour at the same time, kind of a sense of violence, and that goes hand in hand with making people laugh at the darkness of it,” Rea says.
Monaghan says that the Irish culture is steeped in darkness: “They say it takes 150 years to get over a huge cultural crisis. Like the potato famine. Followed like 50 years later by a failed rising and a civil war and the war of independence so we’re still definitely recovering from all that.
“Sometimes you can’t talk about these things but I think the way the Irish deal with it is to have the joke.”
That is not a good thing, says Rea, because people don’t always confront issues that affect their lives.
“But sometimes that darkness can be let out in laughter or in violence or both. I think it’s our way of talking about things that matter,” says Rea.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Mar 16-19, 7.30pm (2.30pm matinee), Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. HK$300-HK$500. Inquiries: 2824 2430