Not long after Melbourne Actor’s Lab director Peter Kalos, along with producers Natalia Nespeca and Skye Young, staged their brilliant show of “The North Pool” in the rudimentary little theatre in what appeared to be the large storeroom at the back of their school in Brunswick, the team announced a drastic upscaling. Thenceforth, their plays, with their distinctively intimate, raw, gritty and paralyzingly honest performances and lean, sharp writing by the luminaries whose sides are practiced in none other than New York City’s original actor’s Studio, would be shown at St. Kilda’s gorgeous Alex Theatre. No more would Kalos’ vision be economized by what he could fit on the tiny floor, nor would his audiences be restricted to the handful that could fit in the ramshackle stalls of the much-loved acting school. As a former student of Kalos’ early years, it did feel right to be back in the old neighborhood. But “The Lonesome West” is a drastic leap from the taut little two-handers Kalos has been handling through his school for the past nine years. Nor, however, is it Ben-Hur. Rather, it’s a starting block. A step out of the fringe-theatre of claustrophobic New York and into the longer-winded, more mobile plays of Great Britain. In this case, Ireland.
One of Martin McDonagh’s pitch-black but comedic Connemara Trilogy, which also included “A Skull in Connemara” and ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane”, “The Lonesome West” carries a visual and sensual dynamic in it’s dialogue that demands the utmost discipline from its actors, in order to transport anyone who hasn’t strayed two-to-three hours west of Galway into the Emerald Hills of rural Ireland, where English might be taken for a whole other language. Fortunately, Kalos’ instincts for actors are as sharp as ever here. All have mastered the accent so perfectly that, while intelligible, it is just barely so, but more importantly, they have found tremendous characters in McDonagh’s work. The two brothers are electrifying in their powerhouse scenes together, and this is where McDonagh’s writing excels. Dean Gunera’s Coleman is quietly and subtly sadistic; a madman wrapped in layer upon layer of lazy complacency. Sean Kitchner’s Valene is a comedic masterwork; his very voice and appearance are ridiculously humorous, and he gets the most out of every line, but rendered with such careful attention to truth that he is almost heartbreakingly real.
However, in much the same way as “A Skull in Connemara”, it is in McDonagh’s periphery that cracks begin to show. Kalos is an acting teacher, and part of his class is working on two-hander scenes picked from any script that fits the bill. Meaning he likely chose this play based on the merit of the scenes between Coleman and Valene alone, rather than the whole play. Indeed, while Renee Kypriotis and Mattew Elliott, in the roles of Girlene and Father Welsh, respectively, are no less excellent actors, and they have all developed the intimacy between their characters so deeply that you’d never doubt that they’ve lived together within the confines of a small rural village their entire lives, McDonagh clearly didn’t care for Girlene in creating her; she is merely a means of communication and a sexual talking point for the men, and no performance, however inspired, can save her; Father Welsh is yet another drunken, troubled priest, and yet again, while Elliott plays him wonderfully, he is written as nothing more than a plot device.
Again, this does not fall on the actors. McDonagh shares the strange aversion to female characterization with much of his male contemporaries and has a streak of underdeveloped supporting characters across his entire resume. Ultimately, you see a Melbourne Actor’s Lab play for the acting, and in doing so, “The Lonesome West” does not disappoint.
Written by Max Davine