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David Ganly - The Lonesome West

When David Ganly was cast in a trilogy of new plays by a little known writer in 1997, he didn't know that the productions by the Galway-based Druid Theatre Company would spend the next three years travelling to London and Sydney before embarking on a Tony award winning Broadway run. By that time, Martin McDonagh had been hailed as one of the most audacious and taboo-busting voices of his generation, and his rural west coast of Ireland set Leenane trilogy – The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West – three of the most shocking but laugh out loud hilarious plays of the decade's new wave of British playwriting.

Almost two decades on, and Ganly is back in a new production of The Lonesome West that forms the highlight of the Tron Theatre's summer season when it opens next week. Where Ganly played local priest Father Welsh in the play's first production, this time out he takes on the pivotal role of Valene, one of two brothers who, in a play that takes sibling rivalry to viciously baroque extremes, tear physical and psychological chunks out of each other.

“I remember then having my eye on playing Valene,” says a breathless Ganly having just stepped out of rehearsals for one of the play's more manic scenes. “I was twenty-six when I played Father Welsh, and when Martin was unknown and Garry Hynes decided to take a punt on doing all three plays. I did it for three years, so it's amazing coming back to it, and even though there are ghosts of the old production in my head, you're not trying to replicate it, but to retain an essence of it.”

In Ganly's view, much of that essence comes through the figure of Valene when placed in furious opposition to his brother, Coleman, played in Andy Arnold's Tron production by Keith Fleming.

“To me,” says Ganly, “Martin's voice comes out best in these extreme characters. Playing Father Welsh as a twenty-six year old was useful for me to try and be the play's moral centre, but for a dramatic challenge, playing Valene, who is as far away from me as can be, is something else again. Now, on mature reflection, having seen Martin's film work and his plays since The Lonesome West, his voice and his true genius is there in these men with a childish quality to them. There's something unformed in them, and I think Valene has that. He's an extreme character, but it's important you try and make him real rather than just a cipher.”

With the play's central relationship between the two brothers looking to dramatic antecedents as much as reality close to home, McDonagh's writing goes way beyond such notions.

“When the play came out,” says Ganly, “there were initial comparisons with Sam Shepard's play, True West, which is also about two brothers, and I think, if pushed, Martin would admit to that, but Keith and I, who are physically quite alike, got talking about the dynamic of brothers, and about this thing of brothers against the world.

“A brother can do anything to you, and they get away with it or you store it up for years, but if anybody else did those things to you you'd clobber them. If The Beauty Queen of Leenane is about a mother and daughter, then The Lonesome West is very much about siblings. No-one fights like brothers, and no-one has each other's back like brothers.”

Ganly saw this first hand while on tour with the original production of McDonagh's play.

“Martin was in rehearsals every day,” Ganly remembers, “and he wouldn't say anything unless he needed to. He was very hands on, and he would protect his baby when he needed to. We opened in Galway, then went to the Royal Court and to Sydney before opening on Broadway, and Martin was around for all of that.”

As was too McDonagh's elder brother, John, a writer and film-maker in his own right.

“We were basically witnessing this brotherly rivalry,” says Ganly. “We'd play poker at night and see what was going on in the play. It was amazing to bear witness to that for the guts of three years, which was a time when we all became like a family.”

For an unknown cast to take three plays by a relatively unknown writer to Broadway was itself an achievement. McDonagh's violent depiction of a rural Ireland still raw from the Troubles made them even more remarkable.

“It was pre Celtic Tiger,” Ganly explains, referring to the cultural and economic regeneration that would put Ireland back on the map. “Ireland was still on its knees. At that time you weren't necessarily proud to be an Irishman, and it's interesting doing the play now and watching all the EU stuff. When I did the play before, this was an Ireland over-reliant on grants for farming, and where the roads were shit. I mean, Jesus, be careful about being isolated. It's only a short walk to blowing each other's heads off.

“What you have to remember as well is that Martin is from Camberwell, and I don't think it's an accident that this play was seen internationally. Both of his parents are from Galway, but he wrote this in his bedroom. He's taking the mickey out of the violence in Ireland, but he's also got a great ear for stories. A lot of his writing is like vaudeville, and his writing is so well made that you know when you hit it, and you know when it's not working.

“But,” Ganley stresses, “if it wasn't for Garry Hynes, no-one was going to do his work. Martin still has in his toilet a rejection letter from the Abbey Theatre, not just saying why they weren't doing his play, but why they thought it wouldn't work.”

Almost twenty years on, the three plays that form the Leenane trilogy are regarded as modern classics which Ganly is happy to revisit.

“I'm looking at it now as a bottle of wine I put away twenty years ago,” he says, “but which is still as brutal as it is laugh out loud hysterical, and which I think is so well written that I think it will still be done in fifty years time in fifty different languages.

“It's something that makes you laugh, but it's also something that when you go home, you question your relationship with your brother or your dad, as well as your own morality. It makes you question what would you do if any of this was happening. It affects you viscerally, and gets under your skin. I'd be very surprised if anyone seeing it doesn't go home and ring their brother and tell them they love them.”

The Lonesome West, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, July 6-23.
www.tron.co.uk

The Herald, June 28th 2016

ends

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