Theatre reviews: The Maggie Wall | The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Two powerful plays – one set in the 1650s, the other in the 1980s – show women trapped by the constraints of small-town rural life, writes Joyce McMillan

Blythe Jandoo in The Maggie Wall PIC: Fraser Band
Blythe Jandoo in The Maggie Wall PIC: Fraser Band

The Maggie Wall, Pitlochry Festival Theatre ****

The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, Brunton Theatre ****

One of the unexpected impacts of the Covid pandemic, and the changes it brought, was a sudden surge of global awareness and campaigning on issues of racial injustice and violence against women. In Scotland, a long reckoning with our historic links to the slave trade began to gather pace; and at the same time, campaigners seeking recognition for almost 3,000 women executed as witches in Scotland between the 16th and 18th centuries reached a milestone in their work, when in March 2022 the First Minister issued a formal apology to victims of Scotland’s 1563 Witchcraft Act, eventually repealed in 1735.

There’s is something outstandingly timely and powerful about Martin McCormick’s new monologue The Maggie Wall, inspired by a strange monument near the village of Dunning in Perthshire which is said to commemorate one of those victims, traditionally known as Maggie Wall. There’s nothing sinister, though, about the young woman who speaks to us for an hour, in forceful Scots, in this unforgettable solo drama, which tells the story of a mother and daughter doubly ostracised in their community for their lack of male protection in a patriarchal society, and for Maggie’s dark skin colour; her long-dead father was a traveller from Mediterranean lands, we learn, with a beautiful signing voice.

Maggie, though, remains cocooned in her mother’s love, and largely innocent of the hatred they attract, until the fateful day when she meets and falls in love with the local laird’s son, setting in train a terrifying small-town drama scapegoating, revenge and virulent misogyny that she cannot survive. She speaks to us just before, and during, her death by burning; and in Amy Liptrott’s fierce and heartfelt production, Blythe Jandoo fairly breaks the heart with her portrait of a young woman doomed to die in hideous agony on the very threshold of life, and yet never flinching in the knowledge of the love that binds her to her mother and of the terrible wrong done by her persecutors.

A mother and daughter trapped by the constraints of a small-town rural life are also centre stage in Martin McDonagh’s mighty 1996 drama The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, set in rural Connemara in the 1980s, when Ireland was still struggling against economic depression and emigration, and featuring the intense and terrible relationship between the lovely Maureen, still a good looking woman at 40, and her evil old mother Mag, who demands constant care, and sabotages Maureen’s every effort to have any life outside the house.

McDonagh’s play is notoriously one of the darkest tragi-comedies ever to grace the Irish and British stage; and it certainly lacks the feminist radicalism of The Maggie Wall, since it builds its drama around the brief possibility that Maureen might be rescued from this hell of a life by the love of a good man.

There’s still a tremendous energy and fluency, though, in McDonagh’s drive to blow apart the traditional pieties about mother-daughter love, and to reveal – amid gasps of laughter and horror from the audience – the full venomous truth about their relationship. And the whole arc of the drama is perfectly captured in Lyn McAndrew’s gently-paced but lethal production, which features an exquisite central performance from Julie Hale as the fragile but finally terrifying Maureen, and leading Irish actress Nuala Walsh as old Mag, the root of all the evil in McDonagh’s terrible but brilliant story.

The Maggie Wall is in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 29 September. The Beauty Queen of Leenane tours to East Kilbride, Giffnock, Stirling, Hawick, St Andrews, Ayr, Inverness, Peebles and Kilmarnock, with final dates at the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, 19-22 October.