In A Skull in Connemara, director Fiona Buffini – in her second main house production since joining Nottingham Playhouse as Associate Director, following last year’s excellent Time and the Conways – handles Martin McDonagh’s gritty poetry with a gentleness that allows the brutality and loss atthe play’s core to emerge as slowly as the two gravediggers can dig.
Madeleine Girling’s set is sparse, but fittingly solid. Three of the scenes take place in an enclosed room with log fire and wooden chairs and table, the unimposing room suggesting peace and stillness. As the play progresses, the room is travestied, most viscerally as Ged McKenna’s Mick and Rhys Dunlop’s Mairtin – both staggering drunkenly – smash a pile of skulls and bones to smithereens with mallets. The combination of glee and diffidence with which the two men set to work is hysterical, but the materiality of their actions is clear as the fragments fly about the set and into the audience. Later, as a bloodied Mick clears the fragments and tidies the room in a long silent sequence, the value of Buffini’s approach becomes clear. The dead are not just present in Connemara; they are in the way, blocking doorways and getting in the gravedigger’s hair.
In the only external scene, the house flies away to reveal a pair of graves. Again, the physicality of the set is crucial as Mairtin and Mick dig up impressive piles of dirt and sink deeper into the ground, their labour dragging the scene out to excruciating lengths while the wonderfully ignorant Garda Thomas (Paul Carroll) smokes and boasts to them of his detective acumen. The presence of Mick’s wife’s grave at the side of the stage is a constant reference point, Mick’s sideways glances at it building to the moment where he begins digging – and the subsequent revelation that his wife’s bones are no longer there.
McDonagh’s combination of banal repetition, lyrical philosophising and inventive cursing is handled ably by a cast who play down the language, the everyday conversational mode shifting seamlessly from the time of the year to wages to damnation to the elephant in the room – did Mick kill his wife?
Paddy Glynn’s hypocritical gossip Maryjohnny sets the tone early on as she continues to hope that a 25-year-old slight by children is punished with eternal hellfire, and it becomes quickly clear that all of the community’s secrets are buried under very thin earth indeed; old grudges are revived at the first moment of tension, and Thomas uses the slightest provocation by Mick to make his accusations.
Everyone has a different burden to bear: Mick stoically, but with increasing frustration, bears the suspicious glances of a whole community; Maryjohnny looks for validation in the fall of others; Thomas sees opportunities to make his name. The passive aggression (spilling occasionally into open aggression) is played quietly but with a growing sense of dread.
Into this blunders Mairtin who, while the least nuanced of the characters, is also the most fun. His inability to filter his outpourings or suppress his ghoulish delight at the sight of skulls rocks his more placid elders, eliciting confessions and demanding that people confront their fears. His relationship with Mick – from mockery to tension to drunken collaboration to something much more terrifying – is the play’s heart, and the affection between the two men, especially in the silence between demolishing bones, offers an effectively jarring contrast to the seemingly inevitable horrors to come.
It is in the silences that Buffini’s direction achieves most. After one particularly careless revelation by Mairtin, all it takes is a tensing of Mick’s body, a quietness in his voice and the picking up of a mallet, almost as an afterthought, to set up the dread that informs the final scene. That the production then goes on to pull the bone-stained rug out from under the audience’s feet at least three times more is down to impeccable comic timing, four perfectly deadpan performances and the ability to underpin even the most extraordinary circumstances with an air of normalcy. As the bones stack up and the bloodstains become ever more obvious (leading to an hysterical moment of metatheatrical comedy as Mick roars for everyone to look at his soaked shirt), it is still the final image of Mick cradling a skull that resonates, his pain unchanged. Earthy and messy in both language and staging, Buffini’s take on A Skull in Connemara is something of a triumph.