Critically acclaimed and Oscar nominated, but what about the man off-screen? The theatrical works of Martin McDonagh

By now, we all know the name. Whether it be from recent works such as ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ or older works like In Bruges, Martin McDonagh has become something of a global sensation for his work in Hollywood.

Over recent years, as discussions around his nominations grow bigger, particularly this year after the explosive success of The Banshees of Inisherin, we have also heard more of the man behind the film, his work in theatre, and the influence he has had on these spaces. 

Martin McDonagh is hailed now as nothing short of a genius and for many years, his plays were equally global sensations. McDonagh has had several broadway and west-end hit performances. His debut was The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 1998. Most recently his newest work Hangmen hit Broadway for a brief stint in 2020. What is interesting to note is the parallels between his theatrical and cinematic works. McDonagh seems to have a unique interest with tragic near unbelievable situations happening in rural areas - his theatrical work frequently focuses on Ireland, specifically the west, while his cinematic has spread itself across many areas - USA, Europe and of course, home, Ireland. 

Starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, alongside Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan, the star-studded Irish cast of Banshees of Inisherin has swept thus far at various film and cinema awards and is up for nine Academy Awards. However, for fans of McDonagh, Banshees, more than anything, has great similarities with his theatrical work. One that particularly springs to mind is that of The Skull in Connemara. Banshees is set on the small isolated Island off the coast of Ireland, where Páraic (Farrell) learns that his friend Colm (Gleeson) no longer wants to be his friend. What unfolds is an ensemble of characters who come together in various interactions to unravel the relationship and secrets of the Island until a calm, somewhat anticlimactic, ending.

A Skull in Connemara, which first made its debut off-broadway in 2001, follows the story of a remote village, where for one week a year local man Mick Dowd is tasked with the moving and removal of bones in the cemetery, as a means of making space for the following years funerals and losses in the village. Local boy Martin Hanlon is offered the role of assisting Mick, where we learn more about Martin’s upbringing, abusive tendencies and see his granny MaryJohnny act as the village gossip. Similarly, Banshees features Keoghan’s character Dominic, unravelling under the pressure of the abusive tendencies of his father, becoming the unlikely friend of Colm. In Skull, this parallel is seen between Mick and Martin, as Martin is given his first ‘sup’ of drink by Mick at the end of a hard day's work.

Without spoiling either topics of conversation above, I cannot recommend enough as a fan of theatre, film and the overlap between, that you consider reading the theatrical works of Martin McDonagh. However, we have to wonder where the line between theatre and film is for McDonagh, and what drew him to the shift from theatrical works and stagings to behind-the-camera projects? In an interview with The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan in 2015, McDonagh said of his return to theatre “I guess I’ve accepted that theatre is never going to be edgy in the way I want it to be. It’s too expensive for a start. And, the audience seems to be complicit in the dullness. It’s like going to a fancy meal in a fancy restaurant with the attitude that, ‘I'm here and I’ve paid the money so I’m going to enjoy it even though it tastes like shite.’” 

McDonagh’s attitude lies very much in when he feels able to write he will, and when he’s not in the mood he won’t. An approach that, unlike others, seems to work for him. I believe this is partly due to the simplicity of his sources - McDonagh doesn’t interest himself with complicated spaces or areas like other productions. Instead, whether it’s for film or for stage, McDonagh takes quiet spaces - rural villages, deserts, islands, small American towns, and even an interrogation room, and places the action in them. Drama, violence, fallings out and confrontation all take place in what, to an outside eye, would seem mundane, boring and stereotypical in a sense. 

McDonagh’s success, in my opinion, lies within his formulaic approach to writing, it seems from my reading of his works, that he lays out a plan almost as though he has intrinsically mapped out the interactions of each character, and from there, the story for the reader unfolds like clockwork, only being given so much to do at any time. Readers are left waiting, hoping for a slip up from the main character, for ultimately, that's where his writing is revealed; his flawed, messy characters. The hybrid macabre-humour of McDonagh’s work is where critics universally agree: this is where his genius is. For those familiar with Irish theatre and stagecraft, you can see an intrinsic link between McDonagh and the work of Synge, in its prevalent dark humour (think Playboy of the Western World). For me, McDonagh will be the future generation’s Synge. It will be in years to come, when students are studying Irish Works of the 2000s, that McDonagh’s work will really come to the fore of critical and textual analysis, but for now, we get to enjoy as he rolls out new content, creative approaches to humour, and constant gritty violence.