Martin McDonagh doesn’t write easy plays. They don’t fit neatly into certain genres, but shift to wherever they need to go to tell a particular story. But what’s remarkable about McDonagh’s writing is how consistently coherent it is; it flows from moment to moment – from style to style — without noticeable gear shifts. His plays run from broad melodrama and horror through to moments that tip towards intimate naturalism. And there are hearty lashings of black comedy throughout. That’s what makes them so difficult to perform.
Director David Cameron hasn’t completely successfully navigated the McDonagh minefield in his production of A Skull in Connemara (the second play in Kin Collective’s full season of McDonagh’s The Leenane Trilogy). A Skull in Connemara is the most macabre and the least known of the three plays, following grave digger and widower Mick Dowd (Christopher Bunworth) as he discovers something unexpected in his wife’s grave. Mick’s world is splintered even further when accusations about his wife’s real cause of death are reignited.
McDonagh doesn’t reach the heights he does in The Beauty Queen of Leenane; these are characters with far less complexity and the plot is a little predictable and dry, even with the splashes of violence. But the dialogue is still sharp and engrossing, and this production does it a disservice.
Things get off on the wrong foot with the opening scene between Mick his elderly neighbour Mary (Marg Downey) which runs with no sense of pace. All the natural rhythms in the script are trampled over, which somehow lulls the audience into a place of steady comfort which they’re never lifted from. When Tom Barton shows up as the young, scattered and fervent Mairtin, there’s a substantial injection of energy. But the performances are out of step, with Barton’s highly-affected performance as Mairtin and Christopher Bunworth trying to bring the torment of Mick to the fore while Marg Downey and Pete Reid feel like they’ve wandered in from an Agatha Christie play.
Not that any performance is necessarily bad – Downey is particularly good as Mary, using her skills as a character actress to escape into the piece, and Bunworth has moments where he succeeds – but there’s no sense of any relationship between the four.
The production values are, as strong as they are in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, with Casey-Scott Corless’s costumes conveying character almost as well as the actors do, from Mick’s worn work clothes to Mairtin’s ‘90s street wear. The set is not quite as evocative as that in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, but Corless has achieved some impressive technical feats in creating a graveyard, complete with dig-able soil onstage. Kris Chainey’s lighting is unobtrusive and sinister in the graveyard scene. But Nick McCorriston’s sound design lacks subtlety here, overplaying the dark, melodramatic musical themes.
The biggest failure is that the dialogue is so rushed that we aren’t given enough time to get our head around who these characters are and what motivates them. The best melodrama comes from a place of emotional truth. Without that, it becomes nothing more than shallow thrills, and it’s difficult to care. Here’s hoping things pick up in the final play, The Lonesome West.
Featured image by Lachlan Woods