'We hurt each other on stage, but don't dwell on it after'
Reviving a 20-year-old Tony Award-winning play is not for the fainthearted - so it's lucky 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' has true grit in its two leading actresses, Marie Mullen and Aisling O'Sullivan, writes Maggie Armstrong
Well this is a rare sight. A classic piece of drama, with two leading parts for women. In those two parts, two giant Irish actresses. Rarer still: one of those leading actresses was part of the original production, 20 years ago.
In 1996 when 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' first opened, Marie Mullen created the role of Maureen, misery-drenched daughter to the elderly harridan, Mags. Marie was 43; now 63, she plays Mags.
Aisling O'Sullivan plays Maureen - fresh from her starry role as Vera in 'The Wake' at the Abbey, which means she goes straight from whore to virgin.
In their rehearsal space down a laneway in Dublin, the two women seem tired around the eyes, but come to life over a pot of coffee. In the room is a skeleton of Francis O'Connor's set - a decaying Aga, squalid kitchen sink and bookcase stashed with chick-lit novels. Boxes of Complan - the grim liquid lunch served in the play - occupies one corner. It's an almost oppressively traditional Irish play setting. But the play, they both swear, is a "masterpiece".
In a production steeped in history, the most pressing challenge has been leaving the past behind, making an award-spangled play their own.
Starting rehearsals, Marie had two sets of lines in her head - Maureen's and Mags's. The late Anna Manahan, who played Mags, had imprinted her "rhythms" in Marie's memory.
Likewise for Aisling, who saw the first production as a young actress in London. "It's indelible. I think the ghost of that performance, because it was so brilliant, will be around us."
The two seasoned Druid actresses have performed together many times, and in a similar unhealthy domestic arrangement in Tom Murphy's 'Bailegangaire'.
Aisling: "I would know Marie since the beginning. You would have been a big figure in my artistic life."
Marie: "And you as well, I've been watching you grow since you were about 18. Aisling started off in a production of 'Famine' with us at the Abbey and she was amazing, and now she's just blossoming."
"Like a big sunflower," Aisling says weakly.
"Like a big Kerry flower," Marie continues. "She's going to be fantastic in this."
Their affection for each other jumps out in stark contrast to their characters - two old bags who despise each other. The play is set in a remote cottage in Connemara where unmarried Maureen has wasted her best years caring for her mother. The chance of love comes knocking at their hovel in the shape of Pato (Marty Rea) via his younger brother Ray (Aaron Monaghan). But it wouldn't be a classic if love bore a happy outcome. The play's violence has invited comparisons between Tarantino movies and Victorian melodrama.
"We hurt each other in the play," says Marie. "But afterwards we tell each other, 'we're not going to dwell on that now, we're going to take ourselves out of that'. Our relationship, it really touches the bone. It's a tough mother-daughter relationship, beyond belief. So we have to be protecting each other, on the road especially, when it's just the four of us."
"There's the ease of the trust on the stage," agrees Aisling. "It's dance - it's mental dance and it's emotional dance. You have to get into the foxtrot, you have to do the step, or else it doesn't work."
Marie, a founder member of Druid in 1975, remembers first reading Martin McDonagh's wickedly witty script. "I knew there was something there, but I couldn't tell you what it was. I thought it was worth a look."
The playwright, London-born with Irish parents from Sligo and Galway, was an obscure 24-year-old when he sent the script to Druid. It had been rejected by theatres in England and Ireland, and at the time Druid's artistic director Garry Hynes described it as "a big gamble".
When the play opened in the Town Hall Theatre in October 1996, it "didn't work", remembers Marie. "We didn't know how to handle the story. You can feel when an audience is not listening. You know you're boring them."
They must have stitched up the problems because Druid's gamble returned a fortune. 'Beauty Queen' was the breakout new Irish play of 1996. It transferred to the Royal Court and the West End and before long it was running on Broadway.
A line in the play, "The Yanks do love the Irish," seems to have predicted the Tony Awards in 1998. Six Tony nominations were rolled out for 'Beauty Queen', with four wins including Best Leading Actress for Marie Mullen and Best Director for Garry Hynes.
But Best Leading Actress or not, Marie was still a young mother, who had had to uproot to New York for a whole year. Marie's husband, actor Sean McGinley, stayed in Ireland and their daughters, just five and one, accompanied Marie with an Irish girl to mind them during the nights.
"Kids are really adaptable, they'll do anything as long as their parents are around. It was great having them there. Because this play can be very dark, and I had to pull myself out and go home and deal with them."
Since that first production, half the cast have died. Anna Manahan and, tragically young, Tom Murphy.
"It's very sad thinking of those two vibrant actors. Tom Murphy was just amazing. And it was a great aul foursome," says Marie.
"But that belonged to then. We have another life now to do with this play. Because there's a whole generation that haven't seen it."
Both actresses believe the play's relevance today is unthreatened. It's not a period piece, says Marie: "These women could still be out there. They're living on the side of a hill in rural Ireland in a very isolated place. It just rains all the time. It's the isolation that plays havoc with your thoughts. It's the pressure of just looking after an old person, when you feel you have something to give the world."
The play is widely produced on amateur and professional circuits, and both actresses squirm at the thought of "connoisseurs" coming in to see it.
Marie: "I hope they won't be comparing, saying Anna Manahan was so much better than Marie Mullen."
Aisling: "I wonder will they compare. I'll come out really bad."
Marie: "No you will not, Aisling, you're going to be glorious."
Aisling: "I'll be glorious - keep telling me that."
For Marie, taking the older role feels like a privilege. "I'm so glad that this is happening in my life. I'm 63 now. Sometimes I wonder am I alive at all. And then I read something like this play and I go 'oh Jesus, that's great'."
As for touring to Los Angeles and beyond, "Well I've never been to LA. We just have to throw ourselves in the deep end and it'll be fine." She does sigh at the thought of "living out of a suitcase - it gets harder as you get older. In the old days, you had more energy to cope with it all. Now I'm more tired - more tired. I can't drink as much as I used to".
"I still do try to drink," she adds wistfully.
'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' plays from September 19-24 at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway. See druid.ie