LAST WEEK, Druid’s production of Helen and I concluded with the sound of rain pouring down outside the kitchen where the play’s action takes place. The Beauty Queen of Leenane opens with the same sound but where the rain in Helen and I signified release, in Beauty Queen it’s symptomatic of misery and confinement.
Indeed, in Francis O’Connor’s design, the rain looks like it has also been pouring down inside the Folan household; the damp-streaked concrete-gray walls, with their glimpses of brickwork, and begrimed fittings strip away anything suggesting cosiness or homeliness in the domestic arena shared and contested by the warring daughter-mother duo of Maureen and Mag Folan.
I must confess I was puzzled by the thin scaffolding and soaring metal rods which O’Connor places around the upper sections of the set. Were they alluding to the English building sites on which Maureen’s love interest Pato Dooley plies his trade? Perhaps, though they seemed incongruous as a constant visual element in the Folan homestead.
This 20th anniversary revisiting of Beauty Queen by Garry Hynes and Druid emphasises the play’s sadness and darkness over its comedy – though laughs there still are a-plenty. Marie Mullen, in a curly-headed wig, gets all of elderly Mag’s conniving gamut of tactics, slyly watching and waiting from her rocking chair for a chance to gain advantage, deploying passive/aggressive wheedling and cajoling with all the élan of a grandmaster if those things were Olympic sports. And though her old age makes her physically weaker than daughter Maureen, she is ever-ready to pounce with wounding words and actions whenever she can.
The irony of Maureen is though we often think of her as the thwarted victim whose chance of love is destroyed by her mother, she is the more violently cruel half of the duo. For all Mag’s nastiness one can’t help but feel pity for her and horror as Maureen hauls her to the stove to be scalded. And yet the heartache of Maureen’s tender scenes with Pato are deeply moving, where we see how this 40-year-old virgin has all the aching longing for love and release that her years of stifled life shackled with her mother have denied.