Monday 19 February 2018

Martin McDonagh and I - a memoir and some mighty enthusiasm for THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI

Martin McDonagh, (2012)
Way, way back, in  January 1998 to be precise, the Sydney Festival imported a production of three plays dubbed The Leenane Trilogy by a young Irish playwright named Martin McDonagh. Twice during the season all three plays were done over the course of an afternoon and evening. Actors did double and treble duty, often playing completely different characters in the three plays. Quite a feat and don’t ask me to remember a skerrick of the plots and stories they told but for the fact they were set in a village in Ireland’s wild west, where people killed each other, fought like cats, swore a lot. A website called Austage has some info and links to reviews and says succinctly that what we saw was  Three plays by Martin McDonagh in nine-and-a-half hours. Characters from the isolated village of Leenane rage and brutalise, booze and pontificate, murder and commit suicide.”

Martin McDonagh was 28 years old at the time and was a couple of years younger when the first of the trilogy, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” was originally produced in a production which opened in Galway in 1996 before going all the way to Broadway via London’s Royal Court.

At the end of the nine and a half hours (including two meal breaks) we were having a drink in the foyer of the theatre, Sydney Uni’s Footbridge, when the actors started to trickle out and head for the bar. Ever the magpie I started asking for autographs from each one I spotted. Then one of the actors first took me round to scoop up everyone and when that was done pointed me towards a young man sitting at the end of the bar, reading something while a beer rested in front of him. “That’s the author” said the actor who also wrote a message below his autograph: “Thanks for supporting the theatre!”

Off I went and the young man, indeed Martin McDonagh, signed my program and then proceeded to draw Teddy Bears all over the title page. Quite good drawings too, I thought. I still have it somewhere.

From then on I was a devoted Martin McDonagh fan. Both Belvoir and the Sydney Theatre Company did his plays, most of them set in the same brutal west where people killed each other, though I cant be sure there haven’t been other productions that I missed. Quite possible.

A quick check of Wikipedia produces some surprising information. McDonagh seems to have stopped writing plays and since 2006 has directed an Oscar-winning short Six Shooter (2006) and three features, the latest of which is Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri which premiered at Venice in 2017 and seems certain to win Oscars next month.

In many senses, transplanting McDonagh from Ireland’s wild west into America’s south hasn’t done much to restrain him. The violent imperatives, indeed as mentioned above, characters that rage and brutalise, booze and pontificate, murder and commit suicide are similarly prominent. McDonagh's screenplay however is a masterclass in plotting as well as demonstrating McDonagh's specialty, writing characters full of deep emotional hurt but which are prone to give you a surprise - which if you were alert was perfectly explicable. Sam Rockwell’s racist redneck, Oscar-bait if ever there was or is such a category of performance, is the major case in point. His is a character that disturbs you but from the very start you get dribbles of information, most notably from Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) that the man is decent but troubled and will eventually do the right thing even after being blamed for doing the wrong thing. Note the use of the earplugs.

It’s a fabulous film - relaxed, funny, full of characters that make you feel mostly warm and positive even when, like Dickson's mother, they have an evil streak - the stoic son, the ex-husband’s eager girlfriend, the Australian-accented wife (huh!), the not-so-dumb sheriff and his fellow cops, the sheriff’s black replacement (Clarke Peters from The Wire), the guy who hangs up the posters, the dwarf who gets the heroine out of trouble - and are all superb creations). You mostly feel good throughout.

And then there is a shot after the sheriff has taken his family for a final picnic. After they have gone there is an abandoned teddy bear glimpsed floating in the water at the edge of the lake. McDonagh's violon d'Ingres....

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