THE LONESOME WEST
THE LONESOME WEST, Empress Theatre at the Old Fitz, 17 January-4 February 2024. Photography by Saz Watson: above - Lee Beckhurst, Andre De Vanny and Abe Mitchell; below - Ruby Henaway; below again - Beckhurst and De Vanny
On the face of it, Martin McDonough’s uniquely misanthropic portrayals of rural Irish life could not be further from the cheery, urban sunshine of modern Australia. Yet Australian theatre-makers and audiences alike are fascinated by the faux-Irish playwright. (Born in Camberwell, south London, childhood summer holidays in the west of Ireland; still lives in London.)
Whatever the root of his appeal, an announcement of a McDonough play – or, in more recent times, a movie: In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and The Banshees of Inisherin – invariably mean a box office stampede. (This production has already been extended less than a week into its run.)
One of McDonough’s “Leenane Trilogy” – with A Skull in Connemara (1997) and The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996) – The Lonesome West was first staged by Druid in Galway and the Royal Court in London in 1997. It’s about two brothers, Coleman Connor (Lee Beckhurst) and Valene Connor (Andre de Vanny) whose mutual loathing is breathtaking. They bicker constantly, each striving to out-despise the other.
As the play opens they are returning to the family home from their father’s funeral. They are joined by Father Welsh (Abe Mitchell) the parish priest and a drunk. The brothers squabble meanly over Valene’s stash of poteen. Generosity and sharing are unknown to either. Meanwhile, Father Welsh despairs as the village is the site of at least two murders and a few suicides – he is a hopeless priest, he believes. A young woman, Girleen Kelleher (Ruby Henaway), drops by with snippets of news while bearing the burden of an impossible crush on Father Welsh. Not a lot else happens, other than Valene driving Coleman mad with his collecting of statuettes of the Blessed Virgin and assorted saints. It’s a minimal plot, yet the richness of many small moments and endless minor irritations are peculiarly spellbinding.
On the wall above the fireplace hangs a double-barrelled shotgun, and above it, a wooden crucifix. In the fireplace stands Valene’s pride and joy: an oven in a shade of orange that, together with avocado bathroom suites, signified the long-gone 1970s. The set allows plenty of latitude for peeling, torn, and water-stained wallpaper, bits of sad furniture, and framed religious prints. Mildew and Catholicism are omnipresent. The design and (properly dreary) costumes by Kate Beere are superb.
Possibly the most startling thing about The Lonesome West in 2024 is how it turns a blinding spotlight on MAGA-land across the Pacific. The deadly dull, pointless lives of the brothers arise from generations of privation, ill education, and oppressive religion. Ireland was a country where for centuries the colonising rich got richer and the natives did not. Spiritual and physical famine and disease were constants along with roiling, barely-suppressed resentment at worlds real and imaginary.
Coleman and Valene demonstrate all the stupidity, ignorance, fear and inner ugliness that inevitably sprung from such a society and such lives. The same can be seen in the USA today, via identical origins and reasons, brought bubbling and malign to the surface by Trump. Is Australia any different, or just some years behind? Are we mesmerised as we stare into the future abyss?!
The second startling thing about The Lonesome West – directed with panache and sure hands by Anna Houston – is how often you find yourself tittering or laughing out loud. It’s partly the natural hilarity of the language (marvelous work by dialect coach Linda Nicholls Gidley) that tickles a non-Irish audience; and partly the very fine performances by the four actors, together and individually. None misses a beat and all are convincing in every way. It’s a challenging and rewarding start to 2024 for the Old Fitz and its new regime. Recommended without reservation.