Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Playboy of the Western World – the lawless shebeen where a good story may earn you attention until your currency is spent (Lyric Theatre until Saturday 2 November)

When a young lad bursts into a border community shebeen and blurts out that he’s killed his father, the regulars are cool with his confession, the women flock around him, and he is awarding the title of ‘playboy’. God’s name is rarely off the lips of the lawless villagers, but their faith is barely skin deep in this play which has problems with a drunken bar-owning father, a murdered father, a mostly ignored priestly father, never mind a father in heaven.

John Millington Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World provoked civil unrest when it was first performed in Dublin in January 1907. The notion that good Catholics could condone murder was shocking and offensively ridiculous. With today’s looser sensibilities, it’s frankly hard to see what provoked such a strong reaction. Mentioning women’s undergarments was apparently scandalous back then, though this version plays with that idea and embraces a general lack of support.

The deeper suggestion that nationalist sentiment and violence was being glamorised and celebrated in 1907 without much regard for the consequence has a vague resonance in 2019 as we wobble towards increased political instability across the island. However, Playboy fails to become a companion piece to the counterfactual The Alternative which has much sharper things to say about modern Ireland in other Lyric Theatre performance space.

Director Oonagh Murphy has shifted the Playboy action further north from its original Mayo setting, and away from the early 1900s to the 1980s judging by the packets of bacon fries consumed in the bar (both on stage and during the interval in the Lyric’s foyer). Given the time period, it’s odd that the acceptance of violence isn’t really linked to anything tangible (nor to the Troubles in this Ulster setting).

Pegeen Mike has the measure of the locals in her father’s bar, and Eloïse Stevenson looks most at home in the first act as the barmaid falls for the charms of Michael Shea’s Christy Mahon who at first quietly oozes sex appeal even when bathing his bloody toes, before stepping up the role the locals have created to become the flamboyant freak show shock jock with the bloody story everyone wants to hear.

Michael Condron delivers a suitably weedy Shawn Keogh who is the most loyal to Catholicism, but lacks any backbone. That Pegeen could ever agree to betrothal emphasises just how desperate she must be to escape her situation. Condron along with Jo Donnelly and Tony Flynn deliver the most comedic moments, while Holly Hannaway, Hazel Clifford and Megan McDonnell provide screechy teenage energy in Synge’s thinly drawn characters who reward Christy with gifts like Wise Men visiting a young Saviour.

Aoibhéann McCann’s permed and feisty Widow Quin cuts a dash in the pub, and when Old Mahon (Frankie McCafferty) staggers into the mayhem, her actions reinforce the impression that it’s the man spreading. liberated women who make the big decisions in this community.

The second act fight scene is well choreographed by Paula O’Reilly: Shea and McCafferty will be getting calls from local wrestling clubs to join up!

There’s an odd stiffness in the acting, perhaps a consequence of the pronounced delivery of the Hiberno-English dialogue, tending to be barked like some form of performance poetry rather than naturalistic conversation.

Pegeen’s final lament at losing her ‘shifted’ playboy would have be stronger if she had rushed out the door after him instead of turning to speak to the audience in what felt like an unnecessary act of fourth wall breaking.

The play feels like we’re watching the performance of a Shakespearen tragedy with the original script dropped into an ill-suited modern setting. The figures of speech don’t quite fit the date or the location. And the new setting doesn’t quite fit the script. (Referring to a gas superser as ‘the hearth’ is a bit of a stretch.)

Overall, while competently staged, the sense of satire has been lost. Synge’s story feels out of place, poorly anchored in the audience’s 2019, or the shebeen’s 1980s. Molly O’Cathain’s wingless set gives Pegeen a neat bedroom above the bar. The opera version of Playboy would have great fun exploiting the upper room and contrasting movement above with action below. However, the lack of pantomime in the play left this set innovation rather unexploited.

The Playboy of the Western World is a Lyric Theatre and Dublin Theatre Festival co-production in association with the Belfast International Arts Festival. It runs in the Lyric until Saturday 2 November.

Photo credit: Mark Stedman

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