I recently had the opportunity to chat with Irish actress Marie Mullen, who I saw on Broadway back in 1998 in Martin McDonagh‘s critically acclaimed dark tragicomedy The Beauty Queen of Leenane (first produced in Galway by the Druid Theatre Company in 1996). The play received six Tony nominations and won four—Ms. Mullen won for Best Actress in a Play for her incredible performance as Maureen Folan, a 40-year old spinster tasked with looking after her cantankerous and manipulative mother Mag. Flash forward to the present day and Ms. Mullen is back in a brand new production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, twenty years after its first premiere, taking on the role of matriarch Mag Folan this time around. Exquisite and impeccable direction is once again provided by Garry Hynes—who was the first woman to win a Tony for Best Direction of Play for Leenane back in 1998. The Beauty Queen of Leenane is now playing at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum through December 18th—I personally can’t recommend it enough—without a doubt it’s a must-see—get tickets HERE. It was just as excellent as I remember the original Broadway production, still packing an emotionally intense and visceral punch that you will haunt you long after curtain call.
MK: You’re back in The Beauty Queen of Leenane taking on the opposite starring role this time around. How did your perception of overbearing matricarch Mag change over the years—from initially playing her daughter Maureen to then tackling Mag almost twenty years later?
MARIE MULLEN: I would say that because I’m 20 years older now, I understand the bond between an older woman and her daughter. I understand that more now than I would say I did when I was playing Maureen. Although I was a young mother myself at the time, I just remember saying to myself, God I hope I never do that to my kids! But I think the main thing that has changed is that my understanding of mothers and daughters has increased since playing Maureen and now playing Mag.
MK: Did you somehow become empathetic to her plight? Is her cruelty justified somehow now that you’ve seen the world through Mag’s eyes?
MARIE MULLEN: I don’t personally sympathise with her cruelty, but on another level I understand that she was just trying to hold on to a daughter thinking that the daughter would have a better and a safer life with her. So I understand her narrow-mindedness with that. That’s what I believe.
MK: Did you have any advice or words of wisdom for Aisling O’Sullivan as she tackles the role of Maureen—who you deservedly won a Tony Award for!
How nice. You’re a kind person to say that. I didn’t really have any advice for Aisling. The occupation in the rehearsal room was for her to relate to me as a mother and for me to relate to her as a daughter as Martin had written it. So there was just the matter of the tension and the animosity and the pulling against one another that had to be worked out between us in the rehearsal room. So I really had no wisdom to give. This is another platform for me. This is a whole new production.
MK: You’ve known director Garry Hynes for years now, can you talk a little bit about the direction of the show this time around and how switching roles felt for the two of you as you tackled this new production twenty years later?
Twenty years later is the key thing here. The Ireland of twenty years ago is not the same as the Ireland now so in a sense the play is becoming classic. I wouldn’t say that it is dated, because we all recognise the things that are happening in it to a degree but it’s the landscape of Ireland that has changed somewhat so what we’re getting is a wonderful story with events that would never happen nowadays. So in that sense the audiences are a little distant from it. And when we went back to rehearse it, I felt that we were all very much playing in the past whereas twenty years ago we were playing in the present, very much playing what was happening in my world at that time.
MK: Did any of the staging of the play change significantly from the original production? What’s it like performing in the smaller, more intimate space of the Mark Taper Forum vs. the Walter Kerr where it played on Broadway?
It is much more intimate in the Mark Taper Forum. We have the great gift of being able to play smaller. Such little things get to be seen.
MK: There’s a number of terms used in the play that might not be familiar to American audiences, what’s the one thing that people might not pick up on its meaning (such as Complan)?
It’s the Complan, the Kimberleys. Maybe the Swingball? But it’s all explained in the play. We actually debated whether we would change the word ‘Scowld’ to ‘Scald’ and we decided not to change it and the audiences still understand what it is. So we just left it as it was.
MK: Can you talk a little bit about the formation of Druid Theatre Company? At the time, did you imagine it would be as successful as it has been for over four decades now – that is quite amazing – congratulations!
Thank you! Well, the formation of Druid Theatre Company happened in 1975 and it was an answer to myself and Mick and Garry, among other things, wanting to have a voice in the West of Ireland. We were desperate to pay more attention to (John Millington) Synge. We thought that the West of Ireland’s particular accent of the time suited it. This is 40 years ago. Anyone can do Synge, you don’t have to come from the West of Ireland, but at the time, we thought we had something original to bring to it. Also, at the time there was no professional theatre outside of Dublin and we thought there were some things that needed to be addressed for a West of Ireland audience.
And no, at no time did we think that it would last for 40 years and I’m very glad, and proud, that it did. I wasn’t involved in the complete development over the 40 years but I’m very glad to come back and to do shows now and I’m very proud of the company and what it has become and what it is today. I’m looking forward to the future with an awful lot of young dedicated actors, crew and stage managers that are interested in staying with the company as they move into their 42nd year and that is very encouraging to me.
MK: What’s on the horizon for Marie Mullen and the Druid Theatre Company? What roles or plays would you love to tackle down the line?
Well I don’t know. There are lots of things that I would like to do. I’d like to do some Chekhov, some more Shakespeare, some Brian Friel…There are loads of plays out there that I’d like to get involved in and loads of roles out there for women of my age. So, I don’t know, some of them I may do with Druid, and some of them I may not, but I’m just looking forward to the future. There are so many plays and so little time.
As for Druid’s future we continue in the US with Beauty Queen until the 18th of December. Then return to play in New York at BAM from January 11th until February 5th. After that we play in Boston for three weeks, a week in Pittsburgh and another week in Ann Arbor. After the US dates we travel to perform the show in the Hong Kong Arts Festival before the final stop, at home in Ireland at The Gaiety Theatre in Dublin.
Following Beauty Queen we are returning to the brilliant production of Waiting For Godot which I saw an outdoor performance of on the Aran Islands. It’s a fantastically human, heartfelt production. It’s the best Godot that I’ve ever seen and it is going into the Abbey Theatre in Dublin from the 22nd of April until the 20th of May.
A darkly comic tale of Maureen Folan, a plain and lonely woman in her early 40s, and Mag, her manipulative, aging mother, whose interference in Maureen’s first and potentially last loving relationship sets in motion a chain of events that are as tragically funny as they are horrific. Garry Hynes, who won a Tony Award® for her direction of The Beauty Queen of Leenane on Broadway, revisits this black comedy by Martin McDonagh (The Lieutenant of Inishmore) with the renowned Druid theatre company.