Review: ‘A Skull in Connemara/the Lonesome West’

Theatergoers tired of Irish wistfulness and whimsy will have a high old time at Martin McDonagh's "A Skull in Connemara" and "The Lonesome West," which arrive in London from Galway's Druid Theater to join last year's "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" under the umbrella title "The Leenane Trilogy."

Theatergoers tired of Irish wistfulness and whimsy will have a high old time at Martin McDonagh’s “A Skull in Connemara” and “The Lonesome West,” which arrive in London from Galway’s Druid Theater to join last year’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” under the umbrella title “The Leenane Trilogy.” Everyone else should brace themselves: While McDonagh’s concurrent Royal National Theater “The Cripple of Inishmaan” suggested the coming of age of a playwright able to absorb his country’s forebears and move on, the two new plays point to an angry young man mired in an adolescent miasma of rage.

These latest plays offer the altogether disheartening sound of a not untalented writer choking on his own bile. Though many marathons (think “Angels in America”) gather a cumulative and exhilarating weight, a day of McDonagh’s singular misanthropy acts as a contagion: Many may find the playwright’s vitriol passed on to an ever more weary audience.

Perhaps these plays would be better served in less indulgent stagings that, as Nicholas Hytner demonstrated with the far more compassionate “Inishmaan,” adopt their own skewed perspective toward McDonagh’s sidelong look at life. Instead, Druid Theater founder Garry Hynes meets the writing without irony, the straightforward approach suggested by Francis O’Connor’s intentionally dreary, bare-bulb sets. (A crucifix, naturally, is the prevailing prop.) The presumed intention is to authenticate the experience of a small-town Ireland steeped in the gossip, ritual and violence against which McDonagh takes no less violent aim. But by the end of “The Lonesome West,” the stage in ruins and with it the spiritual ancestry of a writer on the rampage, one feels nothing but relief to leave the theater.

For all McDonagh’s much-vaunted disinterest in the theater, the plays suggest other, superior works of a less infantilizing sort. “The Lonesome West” often seems a sustained riff on “True West,” centering on warring brothers whose murderous impulses are expressed in ways Beth Henley might recognize. “That wasn’t right, shooting Dad in the head on us,” Valene Connor (Brian F. O’Byrne) tells brother Coleman (Maeliosa Stafford) in one of the few moments when they’re not tearing each other, or their threadbare home, apart. (Incidentally, it was a crack about Coleman’s hair that prompted Dad’s demise.)

In a town in which, says Father Welsh (David Ganly), “God has no jurisdiction,” the Connor boys proceed to lay waste the shibboleths of family, church and state without so much as the redemptive kiss that concludes “Inishmaan.” In order that he not seem entirely heartless, McDonagh folds in sentimental interludes — a letter that turns out to be a suicide note, among them — that mark a writer uneasily trying to have it both ways. For all its madcap spite and comic mayhem, “The Lonesome West” occupies unbroken terrain of scattershot fury.

The trilogy’s middle play, “A Skull in Connemara” (its title can be found in “Waiting for Godot”), is quieter for the most part, but it, too, reaches a climax of sorts when things (in this case a table full of skulls) go smash. The perpetrators here are middle-aged gravedigger Mick Dowd (Mick Lally), whose wife’s corpse has gone missing, and a perpetually inebriated sidekick, Martin Hanlon (David Wilmot), who would forget his head “if it wasn’t screwed up.” Similar malapropisms abound alongside a glimpse of a community steeped in violence that has no choice but to respond in kind.

Did Mick murder his wife? He argues that her worst fault was her scrambled eggs. But while American tourists make much-discussed pilgrimages to the onetime film location of John Ford’s “The Quiet Man,” Leenane gorges itself on innuendo, invective and worse. Small wonder that Mick and neighbor Mary (a smug Anna Manahan) sound as if they are speaking in time to a metronome when they discuss the prospects for rain: Chat about the weather must be a relief amid a malignant environment in which even death cannot be relied upon to confer peace.

Like “Lonesome West,” “Skull in Connemara” needs a good script editor, as well as a stringent director to prune those self-satisfied performances that merely come across as crude. (Wilmot’s brain-dead Martin is especially tiresome.) The play acquires a welcome gravity when Lally takes command, as if, as with Paddy Cunneen’s tonally ambiguous original score, one were seeing the play McDonagh had not bothered to write. There’s no doubt this 26-year-old possesses vigor and energy and a relish for language to spare. But one person’s raw bravado is another’s excess: McDonagh owes it to himself to pause for breath lest he end up crippled by his own disgust.

A Skull in Connemara/the Lonesome West

Royal Court Theater Downstairs at the Duke of York's, London; 586 seats; £19.50 ($32) top


A Royal Court Theater and Druid Theater co-presentation of two plays in two acts by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Garry Hynes.


Sets and costumes, Francis O'Connor; lighting, Ben Ormerod; sound, Bell Helicopter; music, Paddy Cunneen. Opened, reviewed July 26, 1997. A SKULL IN CONNEMARA: Running time: 1 HOUR, 55 MIN. THE LONESOME WEST: Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.


A SKULL IN CONNEMARA: Mick Lally (Mick Dowd), Anna Manahan (Mary Rafferty), David Wilmot (Martin Hanlon), Brian F. O'Byrne (Tom Hanlon).
THE LONESOME WEST: Brian F. O'Byrne (Valene Connor), Maeliosa Stafford (Coleman Connor), David Ganly (Father Welsh), Dawn Bradfield (Girleen Kelleher).

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