A Skull In Connemara

Garbhan Downey is unimpressed by skull-smashing in Strabane

When Martin McDonagh steps up to collect his lifetime achievement gong in 40 years time, the video-montage, I’m sure, will contain clips from In Bruges, Six-Shooter, and maybe the as yet unmade film version of The Pillowman.

It will not, however, contain a single, solitary line from his 1997 drama, A Skull in Connemara, most recently staged by the Love & Madness Ensemble at the magnificent new Alley Theatre in Strabane.

For, no matter how wonderfully performed or meticulously produced Skull is (and hats off to all concerned for making such a damn fine attempt at producing a silk purse here) McDonagh’s writing is so crass, juvenile and hateful, this play is irredeemable.

Let’s start with a half-baked plot, which sees the booze-addled parish-exhumer Mick Dowd forced to dig up the bones of his late wife, who died in a car he crashed. Or did he kill her first? The wife’s bones are missing, however, so he retires to his cottage with his apprentice, where they proceed to bash three other recently resurrected skulls into powder. (Two members of the audience walked out at this point.)

Mick then kills his apprentice and confesses the murder to the Garda, before the boy comes back from the undead and forgives him, only for the village gossip to come in and hint strongly that she saw our man do his wife in all those years ago. He clutches his bottle of póitín dramatically – did he perhaps have a blackout way back then? Lights down, curtain drops.

The humour, for this is indeed a 'comedy', derives from willy jokes, the cooking alive of a hamster, and the smashing of the aforementioned head-bones to the sound of Dana’s 'All Kinds of Everything'.

McDonagh’s Connemara is a thinly-disguised hell, populated by four two-dimensional, interchangeable demons, utterly beyond redemption, who voice nothing but contempt for each other, their lives, their landscapes and their memories. They are devoid of intelligence, warmth or grace – blessed only with nasty one-liners and animal cunning. It is as if Patrick McCabe had decided to write an episode of Father Ted, then removed all empathy and joy from the characters. And, of course, all love. The only emotion on display here is hate – and it is so raw it is tangible.

Had anyone but a London-Irish author written this play, it would have been denounced, loudly, as racist. Where Shane McGowan writes with longing and loss for his Ireland, McDonagh’s pen is full of poison and resentment. Even JM Synge, for all his lampoonery, would never have attempted stereotypes so vulgar and base.

A dozen years ago, I came out of The Cripple of Inishmaan at the South Bank with a deep sense of unease about McDonagh’s abuse of his homeland and its people. After Skull, I felt so dirty I wanted to get home and have a bath.

The players and crew, for all that, make great efforts at trying to present this work as a serious piece. And their fluency and panache, even in the face of trite plotlines and schoolboy toilet humour, make the experience almost bearable.

Peter Foley as Mick the grave-digger deserved his bow for conveying nuances of alcohol-induced schizophrenia, which were never discernible from the wooden script. Anne O’Brien is measured, understated and demonstrates excellent comic timing in her portrayal of the waspish Mary Rafferty. Brendan Wyer successfully manages to extract a few belly-laughs, against the odds, as the thick, bullying, on-the-make Garda Hanlon. And Dylan Kennedy, as the buck eejit youth, Máirtín, marks himself out as a very fine comedy actor – even in this loathsome part.

The production team also pull out the stops – including a very sharp, interactive stage-switch in the first act. And the often fast-paced stage dynamics are very ably directed by Catriona Craig. This isn’t at all a bad production, just a bad play.

On second thoughts, maybe they will play a snatch of this at the Academy Awards in 40 years time, just to remind the audience how far McDonagh – who is now undoubtedly world-class – has come...

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