Actor Yael Stone and director Paige Rattray talk to Hannah Story about the urge to break free and the festering grudges that underpin Martin McDonagh’s 'The Beauty Queen Of Leenane'.
Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen Of Leenane explores the extremely dysfunctional relationship between Mag and her daughter, and full-time carer, Maureen, played respectively by Australian acting legend Noni Hazlehurst and Orange Is The New Black’s Yael Stone.
Director Paige Rattray describes the play as a “wicked, very, very, very, very, very, very, very dark comedy”: “I would say that it is the darkest comedy about a mother-daughter relationship that I have ever read, and will probably ever see on stage.”
It was the playwright, Martin McDonagh, perhaps best known for his film career, including writing and directing In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, that drew Yael Stone to the project. “The play itself is really tight, really dynamic, and I felt like I could trust it,” Stone says.
It’s her first theatre role since performing in The Blind Giant Is Dancing for Belvoir back in 2016, opposite her then-partner, Dan Spielman. But it feels like a much longer period of time between walks on the theatre boards – “That feels like a lifetime ago,” she says.
In her years away from the Australian creative community, since moving to New York in late 2011, Stone emphasises, “A lot has happened for me, and I've done more growing up than I've ever done in my life.”
Before breaking out as fan favourite Lorna Morello on Orange Is The New Black, Stone says “theatre was very much [her] world”. “I felt nervous and intimidated by being back in a theatre, because it's quite a rigorous medium,” she admits.
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But the sheer quality of McDonagh’s script helped Stone to overcome that discomfort. “[The play] has a really undeniable internal engine. I felt like, if I just do what McDonagh tells me to do, I’ll be 60 percent there, you know? And then, of course, the reality of that is like, wow, it’s still really fucking hard.”
Stone is also excited to again be starring in a show in Sydney, her hometown, and to reengage with the Australian theatre community she’s been absent from for a long time. “I'm bringing a whole new self to an artform that used to be very familiar to me,” she says.
That whole new self includes her new role as a mother – her daughter was born in May last year. That new way of being in the world, as a carer herself, has changed the way she approaches her acting practice.
“I think in some ways being an actor requires a lot of time and I just have a lot less time available in my life. I'm just negotiating, and look, sometimes totally failing, or feeling like I'm failing often, at striking the balance.
“But I can't help but think the richness of your life experiences is only helpful in terms of understanding other people and portraying a human experience, which really is the goal of the act of theatre – at least for me. So the more I understand about being a person hopefully the better a performer I am, and I just trust that that will infuse my work.”
For Rattray, who grew up in regional Tasmania, one of the most interesting elements of the play comes from its setting: a village in the Irish hills of Connemara. “I also come from an isolated place, so I kind of identified with it in one way,” Rattray says. She actually first read the play when her mum was caring for her grandmother in a small, isolated town – an uncomfortable parallel.
“[The play] was wickedly funny and then obviously it took a turn, and I was like, 'Oh my God.'… It made me think a lot about people living in isolated places who don't necessarily have access to care, or help, at home, and then what that does psychologically to [someone], particularly to women.
“I think quite often when big events happen that we don't understand, that you could call tragic or violent, particularly in small communities, there's a lot of, 'Oh, how could that have happened?' But people aren’t actually really asking that question,” Rattray explains.
“I'm really interested in, well, actually how do things like this happen and why do they happen? And what happens when there isn't any support there for people? The worst version of this play would be that people brush Maureen aside as, you know, a crazy 40-year-old spinster living in the hills of Connemara.”
There’s a lot of beauty to those hills of Connemara, but Rattray says that the isolation of the space can almost be a “trap”. “The landscape becomes something that [people] are kind of battling with – like the rocks and the mud – and they have to live in it day-to-day.”
Maureen, Rattray observes, is driven by an urge to find a way out of that claustrophobic setting of a small, unkept cottage in an overwhelmingly expansive place. While the play sees the 40-year-old Maureen attempting to pursue her first-ever romantic relationship, to any ends, that effort underlies her real motivation: to escape.
“I don't know whether she necessarily wants to fall in love as much as she wants to get out of that house,” Rattray says. “And she sees that as an avenue or a way to get out of there, which is very problematic in its own way. But when you see the situation that she's in, you would understand that any option that she had to get out of there, she'd take it.”
Stone agrees, using that impulse to get away to help her empathise and inhabit her character: “Maureen has a restlessness and a keen desire to break what she's in,” she says. “I think we all know that feeling in some form or another, so it's about like honing in on that sense of confinement, frustration, that you may or may not have felt in your life and expanding it.”
The play also depicts people, not just Mag and Maureen, holding onto resentments for literal decades. Is there a lesson we can take away from the way the play examines people’s personal histories?
“There is a cautionary tale about being stuck, about being fixed, about festering grudges,” Stone concludes. “There is some lesson in there for us.”
Rattray adds that there’s something to be learned from The Beauty Queen Of Leenane about “kindness and patience and reaching out to people who are unable to ask for help”.
“I think there are a lot of people who can be forgotten, particularly in isolated places within the world. And who aren't often given a voice – I really love about this play that we're seeing people who we don't usually see on our stages.”