Into heart of darkness with ‘Irish Tarantino’

A scene from A Skull in Connemara by Decadent Theatre
A scene from A Skull in Connemara by Decadent Theatre

Director Andrew Flynn talks to JOANNE SAVAGE about the darkly humorous appeal of Martin McDonagh’s 1997 work, A Skull in Connemara, currently on stage at the Lyric

Today Martin McDonagh is perhaps best known for the piquant blend of macabre humour that so impressed audiences in movies like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, where darkly twisted characters and plotlines end in situations of grim near-farce, with much handwringing, gun-toting, swearing, frantic laughter and Colin Farrell in a variety of near-death scenarios.

But before he hit the big time as a screenwriter McDonagh cut his teeth as a playwright, often locating his dramas inobscure rural Irish locales similar to those where he spent childhood holidays (though McDonagh was born and raised in London his mother hails from Sligo and his father from Galway).

This week the playwright’s 1997 Olivier Award-nominated work A Skull in Connemara, which in typically twisted McDonagh fashion, deals with a man who exhumes dead bodies in a graveyard in order to make room for new ones, only to be forced to exhume the body of his late wife who died in suspicious circumstances. Cue the darkest humour imaginable and an exploration of the suspicions that follow the lead character Mick Dowd - here played by Abbey Theatre regular Garrett Keogh - who is eyed with suspicion and horror by the locals.

The drama is set on the night that Dowd has to dig up his wife’s bones and evolves into a ‘whodunnit’ as he discovers her remains have mysteriously vanished, resulting in mayhem.

A Skull in Connemara is part of McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy of plays which also includes The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996) - about a beauty queen who hits her mother over the head with a poker, and The Lonesome West (1997), which follows two brothers bickering over the allegedly accidental fatal shooting of their father.

Judging by the subject matter McDonagh gravitates towards - the body count tends to be significant amid the near-hysterical laughter - it is understandable that he has been dubbed the ‘Quentin Tarantino of Irish drama’; his probing of death and violent acts while keeping the banter flowing spiritedly makes him the undisputed bad boy of the Irish stage play.

This new production by Decadent Theatre is directed by Andrew Flynn and has already toured the Republic of Ireland to great acclaim.

“I had just started in theatre in Galway when Martin started out as a writer – he introduced me to my wife,” said Andrew, who confides that while everyone always knew McDonagh had something special, nobody could have anticipated the success he enjoys today as a Hollywood screen writer.

“Martin is an immensely original voice as someone who has taken the Irish kitchen sink drama and pushed it into dark but always very funny territory. A Skull in Connemara is his typical mix of mayhem, darkness and hilarity.”

Flynn believes he can discern resonances from such canonical Irish playwrights as John Millington Synge - another purveyor of black humour and farce, although not quite moving towards the full-throttle twisted territory McDonagh favours.

“Martin typically takes you into the familiar territory of the rural Irish hearth and then does something much more warped and unexpected, bringing you to a world of violence and pitch black comedy.

“This is like farce that occasionally kicks you in the gut. You find yourself laughing at terrible things that have happened to people that you really shouldn’t laugh at - like in scenes from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. McDonagh is perhaps king of the guilty laugh.”

Aside from praising the quirky Tim Burton-esque set design, Flynn also waxes lyrical about the “fierce flow and poetry” of McDonagh’s colloquial, banter-heavy language.

So for a high frequency of laughs as you are pulled remorselessly into the heart of darkness, A Skull in Connemara sounds like the ticket.

Until March 16, Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Call the box office on 02890 381081 or visit