Did I really laugh out loud at the vision of human skulls being cracked to pieces with a mallet by two insanely drunken Irish men, to the strains of Dana’s Eurovision song, ‘All Kinds of Everything’? Was there not an intake of breath at the use of language from another era, with ‘darkies’ and ‘lesboes’ referenced? How can anyone make such an entertaining play about a grave-digger, a policeman, a bingo-playing Granny, and a weak-witted boy? This is evidence of the sheer skill with which Martin McDonagh crafts his subversive plays, chock-full of black humour as paeans to small-town Irish life, where bingo and illegal stills of poteen fuel everyday gossip, while tragic events such as deadly car crashes, grave robbing, drink driving and domestic violence seethe below the surface.
Chris Lawson has directed at the Coliseum in Oldham a welcome revival of the McDonagh play, ‘A Skull in Connemara’, which premiered in 1997 at the Royal Court in London. The four highly talented performers mine every seam of humour and nuance, to portray a complexity of relationships and events which are belied at first glance by the poverty of dress and the absence of any material comforts on the domestic front. The set is simple – at the back a fire, a chair, a cupboard, a radio in a bare-plastered room; at the front a graveyard delineated by soil and an empty pit ready for exhumation.
John O’Dowd as Mick the tragic husband wears his melancholy heavily, lightening up only when the poteen takes hold, becoming positively gleeful with a mallet in his hand. His partner in skull-bashing, young Mairtin, played by Liam Heslin, has a poetic fluency in speech and demeanour, though a conversational style quite devoid of any intellectual content. Granny MaryJohnny Rafferty, played by Jenny Lee, is adroit in keeping her profile low while her ear is attuned to any glimmer of gossip or ‘aspersions’ about the death of Mick’s wife in a car crash seven years ago. The quartet is completed by Griffin Stevens as Thomas, the local Garda, wonderfully dim yet with ambition to make his name by proving that the death in question was not an accident after all.
At the end we are left with our own theories as to the questions posed by the play – the only certainty we can have is that digging up the past, whether literally as here, or figuratively, is an occupation that is part of the human condition, and once embarked upon may lead to unforeseeable outcomes.
As an afterthought, I highly recommend the Coliseum itself. Although situated on a side street, so it seems a little out of the way, once you get inside the welcome is warm, the bar is roomy, the auditorium is spacious and comfortable, and the whole theatre-going experience is extremely enjoyable. Go and see for yourself.