THE TOWN Hall’s autumn season gets underway in earnest next week with a high-profile production of Martin McDonagh’s brilliantly visceral comedy of sibling rivalry, The Lonesome West.
The play received its world premiere at the same venue in 1997 in a famous and much-lauded coproduction by Druid and the Royal Court and this new staging is also a coproduction, between the Town Hall and Cork Opera House.
Two brothers battle it out over a dead father, an inheritance and – last but not least- a packet of crisps. Sadistic, inflammatory, dangerous and uproariously funny - that’s The Lonesome West, the final instalment in McDonagh’s award-winning Connemara trilogy.
The play tells the story of Coleman and Valene Connor, whose dysfunctional cohabitation plays out a hilariously dark vision of the human condition. The Connor brothers live modest lives, gleaning joy from simple pleasures: drinking poitin, scoffing vol au vents, joking with the feisty Girleen, tormenting Father Welsh and fighting with each other…constantly and brutally. When, in an attempt to salvage their relationship they confess all to each other, the results are explosive.
McDonagh excels in reinventing the green pastures of Ireland with a distinctive blend of violence and wit. His quick-paced dialogue and shocking onstage action make him the Tarantino of theatre and arguably one of the most influential and exciting creative forces in theatre today, and Lonesome West ranks among the best of his plays to date.
The 2009 version of Lonesome West is being brought to the stage by a first-rate creative team, including director Andrew Flynn, set designer Owen MacCarthaigh, lighting designer Adam Fitzsimons and a cast of John Olohan as Coleman, Michael McElhatton as Valene, Samantha Heaney as Girleen and Galway-born actor Owen McDonnell in the role of Father Welsh.
For McDonnell, who is largely based in London, the play affords a welcome opportunity for a trip home and an equally welcome renewal of his acquaintance with McDonagh’s work, having previously played INLA psycopath Mad Padraic, the lead role in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, at the Town Hall in 2006.
Since featuring in that play McDonnell’s star has been in the ascendant, notably taking the lead role of Garda Sergeant Jack Driscoll in Touchpaper’s three TV series of the Connemara-set crime drama Single-Handed. Lonesome West thus sees him revisit, on stage, much the same beat he had been exploring in the successful TV drama.
It turns out there’s a certain symmetry to that as it was while he was still doing the earlier McDonagh production that he first got the call for Single Handed. “We were doing Lieutenant in Galway,” he recalls “Maureen Hughes, the casting director, called three of us up to Dublin – John Olohan, Joe Hanley and myself- to audition for this new crime drama they were making and luckily enough we all got parts in it.”
It was McDonnell’s first experience of television acting so how did he negotiate the transition? “I didn’t have much time to think about it in advance,” he notes, “ because we were all caught up with Lieutenant of Inishmore when I got the role. What helped me a lot once we started shooting was that the rest of the cast and crew were all very generous with their time and expertise.
“I was surrounded there by very fine, very experienced actors and crew-members and they helped me a lot to adapt to the needs of a TV drama. I think with TV drama, as an actor you have to be aware of where you fit in the story at any one point, you always have to be very present and in the moment.”
Single Handed and Lonesome West, respectively, see him take on the roles of those twin pillars of Church and State, garda sergeant and priest. But where Jack Driscoll still carries an aura of authority in the community, in the play Fr Welsh is a much more hapless figure, as he vainly tries to restore some semblance of peace and harmony to the warring brothers and wayward Girleen.
While McDonagh gets immense comic mileage out of Welsh’s plight, McDonnell observes that there is also a good deal of truth in his depiction of the character.
“When I was researching the role of Jack Driscoll, I spoke with a garda sergeant who worked in Connemara,” he reveals. “He told me that over the last 10 to 20 years in that community there had been a complete reversal in the roles played by the sergeant and the priest. Whereas once people would always go to the priest if they were in trouble, now they increasingly looked to the sergeant for advice.
“I think Fr Welsh reflects that change, he just doesn’t possess the kind of authority that priests of an earlier generation would have had. On the other hand he reacts like a regular person would to all this dysfunctional behaviour that is going on around him in the play so I think audiences can relate strongly to him on that level.”
Looking ahead, McDonnell is waiting to hear if there will be another series of Single Handed and he is also scheduled to feature in a French-based road movie written and directed by Alanté Kavaïté which starts shooting next year.
In the meantime, we can enjoy watching him and his fellow actors negotiate the mean boreens of Martin McDonagh’s Connemara in The Lonesome West. There are preview performances on September 11, 12, and 13 and the play then runs from Monday 14 to Saturday 19, at 8pm nightly.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777.