Funny, tragic, repulsive: A brief history of Martin McDonagh’s haunting plays
His plays have conjured up terrifying scenes for decades, establishing Martin McDonagh as one of the leading playwrights on the London theatre scene. Ahead of this summer’s long-awaited West End premiere of the Olivier Award-winning play The Pillowman at the Duke of York’s Theatre, we look back at productions of Martin McDonagh’s plays in London that have had audiences on the edge of their seats.
McDonagh’s playwriting debut came in 1996, with his first trilogy of plays set in and around County Galway. Collectively titled The Leenane Trilogy, each play has a self-contained narrative that focuses on events taking place in a small Irish village, as characters find themselves strained by family relationships and fatalities. McDonagh’s first play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane was performed across Ireland, until a London transfer at the Royal Court and a subsequent West End transfer at the Duke of York’s, with Darren Dalglish commending “the way the writer made you laugh at characters that have or are about to do horrible things.” The play eventually went on to receive an Oliver Award nomination for best new play, establishing McDonagh as a playwright to watch.
The following year, theatregoers looked forward to A Skull In Connemara, the second instalment in McDonagh’s debut trilogy, where an Irish man sees the wife he was previously accused of killing. However, it was the final part of the trilogy which really got everyone talking. Depicting the shocking events in Leenane, The Lonesome West explores the relationship between two brothers locked in intense sibling rivalry as they mourn their father’s passing. It’s a play that, according to Darren Dalglish expresses a “question of what do people do with their lives in such a lonely, secluded place”, praising McDonagh’s ability “to make you laugh, cry and be repulsed all in one scene.”
One trilogy may be more than enough for some writers, but not McDonagh. 12 months after The Beauty Queen of Leenane opened up, the first play in his second trilogy The Aran Islands Trilogy received its premiere at the then-named Cottlesloe Theatre (now Dorfman Theatre) at the National Theatre. Titled The Cripple of Inishmaan, his 1997 play sees a crippled teenager dreams of a glamorous Hollywood life that’s a million miles away from a small island off Ireland's west coast. This “irrestistibly infectious and very, very funny” play has only been revived once in London, with Daniel Radcliffe taking on the titular role in a 2013 revival at the Noel Coward Theatre.
However, it’s not the only McDonagh play to recently return to the West End stage. Poldark’s Aidan Turner starred in a 2018 revival of the 2001 play The Lieutenant of Inishmore as Padraic, a member of an IRA splinter group whose desire to commit extreme violence grows when he learns how his cat, Wee Thomas, was killed. It may be set during The Troubles, but there’s nothing troubling about this play. Mark Shenton hailed it as a “frequently queasy but seriously guilty pleasure” that’s been seen on both sides of the pond, later receiving a Tony Award nomination for the play’s Broadway transfer. But the same cannot be said for The Banshees of Inisheer, the final play in The Aran Islands Trilogy which was never published.
Away from his two trilogies, McDonagh’s plays have captured the imaginations of London theatregoers. The world premiere of his 2003 play The Pillowman has been considered to be one of the finest plays of the century so far, even if the story of a fictional writer being interrogated confirmed that McDonagh has “the vividest and sickest mind of his generation."
He’s also had plays receive their London premieres in the capital’s prestigious off-West End venues. His 2015 play Hangmen detailed the life of Harry Wade, a British hangman whose life was affected after the Murder Act 1965 came into the effect. If our review of Hangmen as an "instant modern classic is anything to go by, then it's sure to make an impression on the Great White Way when Hangmen receives its Broadway debut this season. More recently, A Very Very Very Dark Matter was the sixth production to ever be staged at the Bridge Theatre, revealing the twisted origins of tales by Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Dickens.
McDonagh's critically-acclaimed writing isn't limited to the stage; his film scriptwriting for In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri have both earned him Oscar nominations for best original screenplays, with the latter film winning two Academy Awards. So, as The Pillowman returns to haunt the minds of theatregoers, now's your chance to witness McDonagh's work up close and personal.