Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Review: 'A Skull in Connemara'

Adelaide Repertory Theatre, The Arts Theatre, April 19 - 28 2012. Written by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Kerrin White.

For a play in which the two main characters spend much of the second act smashing exhumed human bones with hammers, A Skull in Connemara opens in a curiously mundane fashion. An old woman knocks on the door of a house. A man answers. There is talk of weather, and how cold it is – how very cold it is. In this way, playwright Martin McDonagh eases rather than propels us into his world. It’s a world both light and dark, populated by abject liars, nincompoops and losers. It would be a horrific destination if not for the gallows humour, and a ludicrous one if not for the Pinteresque omnipresence of menace and terror.

            A Skull in Connemara is a sequel of sorts, the second play in McDonagh’s loose trilogy set in County Galway, Ireland. The first play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, was staged by the Rep last year. It was a deservedly well-received production and both director and cast agreed to undertake Leenane’s more knockabout successor with a view to staging the whole trilogy over three years. I look forward to the third and final instalment, The Lonesome West, in 2013 but, admittedly, some of the shine has been taken off the prospect by the disappointingly mixed results of this production.

            A Skull in Connemara’s juicily macabre set up has all the makings of a rollicking black farce: unscrupulous Connemara local Mick (Peter Davies) works in a graveyard and is charged with the unenviable task of relocating skeletons when there is insufficient space for new burials. He is assisted by the gormless Mairtin (Mark Drury) as an overbearing policeman (Steve Parker) supervises and the bingo-obsessed Mary (Jude Brennan) happily fans the flames of the town’s most enduring rumour – that Mick murdered his wife, the same wife whose bones he and Mairtin are due to disinter.

            With The Beauty Queen of Leenane, McDonagh showed himself to be a fine dramatist and an adroit storyteller, capable of imbuing his often grotesque characters with depth as well as charm despite their intrinsic unpleasantness. The writing on display in A Skull in Connemara is far less accomplished and has a quality of unfinishedness about it. As a result, the four characters seem to appear in outline rather than in full detail and this takes the necessary edge off much of the intended comedy. Kerrin White’s direction doesn’t really do enough to address this problem – the performances are, on the whole, rather flat and strangely unconnected but I feel this is not so much a reflection on the abilities of the performers as on White’s inattention to the deficiencies of the script. With such thinly constructed characters as these, the actors need at least to appear to have complete confidence in what they are doing. The fact that none of them does suggests to me that they needed greater input from White in creating characterisations strong enough to withstand the writing’s shortcomings.

            Technically, White’s production is something of a mixed bag too. The decision to create two back to back sets on a revolving rostrum was a regrettable one, necessitating a highly disruptive three minute (!) set change about halfway through the first act. The fact that the graveyard set which emerged after the hiatus was distinctly ropey made the wait even more unfortunate. To be fair to White, and the Rep, A Skull in Connemara makes greater demands of its designers than does its predecessor but I had to wonder why a graveyard wasn’t simply constructed in a different part of the stage, as was done when Independent Theatre staged a production of McDonagh’s play in 2001. Mick’s cottage is better realised but I found its width and relatively unbroken greyness alienating. I wanted more clutter, more colour and less room to move.

            The bones, on other hand, are terrific and have been justly celebrated by audiences and, indeed, by the Rep who have devoted two pages of the program to explaining how they were made (with a variant of plaster of Paris, and casts made by David Roach and Independent Theatre, in case you were interested). In part, the second act is much better than the first because of the specialness of these special effects but it is not only the technicalities which improve – the performances, especially those of Davies and Drury, grow enormously. They become, not quite too late, a joy to watch, especially in partnership. It’s enough to ensure the play comes home, if not completely satisfactorily, at least far more strongly than it began. At last – some meat on those splendid bones!

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