.home | art & architecture | books & cds | dance
| destinations | film | opera | television | theater | archives
The Playboy of the Western
Since its scandalous
first performance at the Abbey Theatre in 1907, The Playboy of the Western World
has survived several transformations. Once hated, latterly dismissed, it is known by name
in every part of Ireland. It has been staged so many times that it long seemed to have
lost its teeth even before its appearance on secondary school syllabi practically
guaranteed that familiarity would breed a new kind of contempt. In recent years it has
been suffering a slow death on the amateur circuit while occasionally being resurrected by
the National Theatre as a summertime attraction for visitors to the home of the original
Blue Raincoat Theatre Companys staging under director Niall Henry
Adventures in Wonderland, Alice Through the Looking Glass) restores Playboy's
savage heart. This absorbing production reveals the complexities of the text on both
linguistic and polemical levels by stripping it relatively bare, playing it completely
straight, and adding elements of mime and dance to enhance and explore the muscularity of
the characterization and social commentary.
The play recounts the story of a small community in County Mayo which
is thrown into confusion with the arrival of a mysterious stranger who claims to have
killed his father. The local men arent sure if he represents a threat or not; the
local women find him fascinating. He gradually insinuates his way into the family of a
local publican, and overturns the engagement between his daughter and her drab fiancee.
It turns out that the mans father is not dead though. In fact he soon arrives with a
gaping head wound, searching for his ungrateful idiot son. This sets off a chain reaction
of deceptions and revelations building to a violent climax.
On its first run, this play was considered an affront to Irish culture.
Many thought it to be a vicious pack of lies. "This is not the West," they cried
(literally) as they rioted in the streets of Dublin. This bundle of slanders was not, they
claimed, a true representation of the holy and peaceful place that they believed rural
Ireland to be at the turn of the twentieth century. Such detractors were as blind to the
social realities of the times as they were to what Synge was trying to achieve. The play
was not entirely realist in the first place. Its sense of the ironies, hypocrisies and
hidden darknesses in the Irish psyche had more to do with dramatic exaggeration than
documentary. Other observers thought the play was courageous and subversive, a masterwork
of modern Irish theatre (albeit written in English). This argument may have had as much to
do with the commentators views on the evolution of a national Irish theatre as the
plays intrinsic worth though, and the Abbey persisted with domestic and touring
productions throughout the subsequent years and decades.
It may take a bit of coaxing to persuade an Irish theatregoer to visit The
Playboy, but this one is worth it. It is very easy to rush through Synges
"God save all here," dialogue and play it for laughs against an elaborate set
evoking an Ireland long dead and a soft target. The play is absurdist enough in itself to
lend itself to dismissive reading; a pantomime for the tourists which requires no
intellect and encourages no thought. But this production savors every sentence the
characters speak and asks you to listen. With due attention to the rhythm and cadence of
the original dialect, the actors deliberately slow the pace of delivery, adding
solemnity to the script which is matched by low-key costumes, moody lighting and a
sparsely-decorated set with seating on two sides. All of this discourages the audience
from getting comfortable with their bag of chocolates, and draws attention to the work of
theatre in performance. Suddenly the absurdities are less about caricature than they are a
sort of carnivalesque surrealism. The play becomes more akin to a twisted nightmare about
the oppression suffered by these characters in this setting than it is a happy slice of
blarney. It sets the mind in action. It does not lull it into a stupor.
Olwen Fouere and Mikel Murfi carry most of the weight of the
production in the key roles of Pegeen Mike and Christy Mahon, although all of the actors
exert great presence. There is an emphasis on slow physical movements and an exaggerated
stillness which calls to mind Steven Berkoffs production of Wildes Salome
at the Gate. It is not quite as stylized as that, but as such it is no surprise that
Fouere, who created the role of Salome in Berkoffs production, should turn up
here (she was also impressive in 1999s The Tempest at the Abbey).
Murfi has recently left Barabbas...the company, which he co-founded.
The role of Christy is a tricky one to play, veering from gormless idiocy to menacing
intensity as suits the moment. Again demonstrating control over corporeal expression, he
manages it well. Also impressive is Cathy Belton (Tartuffe) in the role of widow Quinn. In contrast to
the usual portrayal of this character as an aged crone, Beltons youthful energy adds
malicious sexual charge to the characterization, and the play is all the better for it.
The triangle of desire between Pegeen, Christy, and the widow is much more
July 16, 2001
- Harvey O'Brien