The Playboy of the Western World, Loft Theatre, Leamington, until March 9.
Classic theatre is often associated with historical significance. And in Irish historical terms, there seem to be few more significant plays than J.M. Synge’s early-1900s pot-stirrer.
Today there is reason to ponder what it offers a modern audience. It has poetry in its language, a colourful hybrid of English and lyrical old Irish speech.
We can also recall the outrage it caused among nationalists and republicans with its insidious nose-thumbing at what was then seen as public morality.
For all that, it’s a bold step by the Loft to attempt to recreate the power and the passions of this Celtic curiosity with its poteen-fuelled blather and constantly irreverent derring-do.
At best, it’s bawdy Irish Shakespeare, a delight to the initiated, probably incomprehensible to others. The production by Gus and Mary MacDonald savours this aspect and takes a full-blooded plunge into the issues of whether a young man who claims to have killed his father can be justifiably hero-worshipped or, at a turn of the tide, violently vilified.
From the opening moments of a far-too-long sing-along session, this is Irishness in the extreme. Rightly so, in much of the context, especially whenMary MacDonald’s splendidly calculating Widow Quin starts spreading her tentacles and Tom O’Connor’s confused and wounded countryman is forced in and out of belief in his own sanity. At these points the production hits its most effective notes.
But the humour is sometimes forced and the overall pace falters through weaknesses in the leading roles (Sam Wall and Siobhan Twomey).
Clearly the value of reviving a fabled title such as this has to be acknowledged, but one is left wondering if it’s actually more fun for the performers and company than their audience.
....Savagery and fine words
A brave decision by the Loft to do this difficult play. Its language is lyrical but remote, with classical references (Irish, as well as Roman or Greek).
The behaviour of the characters is strange to modern sensibilities, swinging from suspicion to love to hate in an instant. Rather Shakespearean in fact, as another reviewer on these pages has noted.
Young, handsome, romantic Christy Mahon appears from nowhere in a West of Ireland bar where all the play’s action takes place. He’s killed his father with a loy (hand plough), confessing to which makes the local girls swoon and the men treat him as a hero. But has he really killed his father? If not, what’s Christy up to? The answer, ebbing and flowing, provides the play’s (limited) narrative drive and brings out what Pegeen, our heroine, calls the locals’ savagery.
The Loft’s company has done its usual fine job in mastering this complex text.
Accents are mostly secure and the actors’ delivery pacey and rhythmic as they make a good fist of delivering what WB Yeats (a founder of the Abbey Theatre) said should ‘delight the ear with a continually varied music’.
The older actors (some of whom performed as younger characters in the Loft’s last production of Playboy in 1995 and one of whom, Gus MacDonald, also directs this production) are particularly effective.
In some ways it’s not hard to see why the play caused such a rumpus at his first outing in 1907 at the recently founded Abbey Theatre, reflecting back to its (nationalist) audience a picture of rural Ireland as passive, unforgiving and cruel. On the other hand we struggle to understand how the word ‘shift’ (a woman’s nightgown) could have precipitated a riot. Masterpiece or historical curiosity? Go along and decide for yourself.
- John Goodman