Laughter in the dark
As Glasgow’s Tron Theatre prepares to stage Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West, Mark Brown talks to director Andy Arnold about the Irish dark comedy
Andy Arnold, artistic director of Glasgow’s Tron Theatre Company, is a happy man. Not only because his beloved Hibernian FC won the Scottish Cup recently, but also because he is currently in the midst of rehearsals of The Lonesome West, one of the finest plays by one of his favourite writers, Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh.
The Irishman is the writer behind such acclaimed works as the stage play The Lieutenant of Inishmore and the film In Bruges. He made his name in the 1990s with The Leenane Trilogy; three outrageous, bleakly comic plays set in the west of Ireland which contemplate an agonisingly dysfunctional society.
The final play of trilogy, The Lonesome West, is arguably the darkest. Set in the rancid home of viciously warring brothers Valene and Coleman, it is a tale of suspicious “accidental” death, suicide and an earless dog.
The Tron staged the first part of the trilogy, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, back in 2001, in a production directed by playwright Iain Heggie. Now Arnold is turning to The Lonesome West, a drama which he considers, “the funniest one of the three and completely surreal.”
Arnold, whose recent Mayfesto season took the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin as its theme, has a distinguished history with Irish work. As founding artistic director of the late, lamented Arches Theatre Company in Glasgow, he staged memorable productions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot and Brian Friel’s Translations. His work at the Tron includes a superb staging of James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses.
The director is clearly relishing getting his teeth into a play which has become established, since its premiere in Galway in 1997, as a modern classic. “It’s in a league of its own, in terms of the darkness and the anarchy of it”, he says.
Arnold agrees that there is an almost cartoonish boldness to McDonagh’s comedy (imagine J.M. Synge’s satirical play The Playboy Of The Western World dragged into the late-20th century by the Coen Brothers). However, having family connections to the west coast of Ireland through his marriage to actress Muireann Kelly, the director also notes a very definite accuracy in the author’s social observations.
“It’s not so far from reality”, Arnold comments. “The west of Ireland is a wild place. You do get awful domestic tragedies and murders.
“Things go very wrong within families. There are massive problems with alcoholism and suicide. These days, suicide is most prevalent among teenagers.”
If The Lonesome West offers an ominously hilarious reflection on family relations, it is no more sparing of the Church. A priest, Father Welsh, attempts to reconcile Valene and Coleman, but, alcoholic and seemingly beyond redemption, you wouldn’t bet on his chances.
“McDonagh really pushes the boat out. He’s very provocative”, Arnold observes. “There’s a total blasphemy in the treatment of the priest, but also a great sadness.”
There is a powerful paradox in the play’s combination of robust, scabrous humour with a subtle, underlying pathos. To convey it to an audience, a director needs a talented cast.
Arnold certainly has that. The role of Valene will be played by leading Irish actor David Ganly, who played Father Welsh in the world premiere production in Ireland and on Broadway.
Opposite Ganly, playing Coleman, is Scottish actor Keith Fleming (who recently played Aegisthus in This Restless House at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre). Acclaimed for both the tremendous energy and the emotional depth of his performances, Arnold believes Fleming was “an obvious choice” for the role.
The cast is completed by Michael Dylan (who Tron audiences will remember from Ulysses) as Father Welsh and Kirsty Punton (currently in the final year of her acting training at Glasgow Clyde College) as Girleen (the tomboy from whom Valene buys his poteen).
Scottish audiences have the privilege of having first dibs on Arnold’s production. Come October it’s off to the city of Perm, amidst the Ural Mountains in Russia, to play at the Theatre on the Bridge.
The Lonesome West plays at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, July 6-23. For more information, visit: tron.co.uk
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 26, 2016
© Mark Brown