A Skull in Connemara – Review by Helen O’Leary
The first peals of audience laughter come a bit reluctantly. After all it seems a bit inappropriate to be chuckling at a husband faced with the task of exhuming his dead wife’s remains. But laugh we did and the subject matter doesn’t become any more appropriate. It’s testament to the comic writing of Martin McDonnagh that while the spooky graveyard scene is in full flow, with characters tumbling into open graves, the audience’s laughter is in full stream. McDonnagh tramples on every taboo topic and all the possible ways you can come to a sorry end in rural Ireland are humorous. Drownings and farm accidents, children crushed by tractors or swallowed by combine harvesters, there are no boundaries.
Garrett Keogh is cast as Mick Dowd, the widower who every autumn undertakes the grim work of making new space in the local graveyard, by digging up the bones of those that are seven years dead. This year however is the seventh anniversary of his wife’s death and the Dowd is faced with the task of exhuming the remains of Mrs. Dowd. Mick’s restrained character is off set by the energy and exuberance of his young and inept helper Mairtin. The black and wicked banter is incessant between the two while they work. With Mairtin constantly alluding to local rumours that surround the circumstances of his wife’s death, we become aware of Mick’s sinister side. However to the true extent of Mick Dowd’s menace we are left guessing.
Much of the action takes place inside the cottage of Mick Dowd, and it has all the neglectful signs of a rural widowers abode with dirty windows and lace curtains in tatters. The shift to the graveyard scene happens when the walls of the cottage literally tumble down, to reveal in profile a sloping hillside cemetery. With its headstones silhouetted against the night sky and the men working by lantern light the design by Owen MacCarthaigh is eerie and inspired.
Much of the play’s dialogue is written in Hiberno-English. It is reminiscent of another Irish playwright with an affinity for Connemara, J.M. Synge who was heavily criticized for a similar style. McDonnagh plays up the embellished rural speech shamelessly but it works well with his comic take on many aspects of Irish life. The smashing of skulls is perhaps another not so accidental allusion to The Playboy of the Western World. Mercifully the only riot at the Gaeity last night was one of laughter.
Jarlath Tivnan as Mairtin is outstanding and he plays perfectly a mixture of the gombeen and crafty stoker up of trouble. The all-seeing neighbour Mary Johnny (Maria McDermottroe), spends much of the play planted firmly on a kitchen chair and delivers her gruff utterances with great aplomb.
A Skull in Connemara is the lesser known play in Martin McDonnagh’s the Leanne Trilogy, This play is a strange combination of morbid and funny, slapstick and sinister. It has for too long languished in the shadows of the better known “The Beauty Queen of Leanne”. This excellent production is directed by Andrew Flynn and staged by the Decadent Theatre Company. Bizarre but brilliant it comes highly recommended.
A Skull in Connemara runs at the Gaiety Theatre until Feb 2nd.