Saturday, November 19, 2011

A few weeks back Owen and I braved the wilds of Waterloo to see the Old Vic's production of one of the classics of Irish theatre, THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD by J.M. Synge.

Owen was particularly excited as he has long wanted to see a production of the play which he studied once. I had only seen the play once before when Fiona Buffini directed it at the National Theatre in 2001 which I mostly remember as being lit very murkily and featuring a fine performance by Derbhle Crotty as Pegeen, so I was curious to jog my memory of the piece.

The theatre was very busy in the peanut gallery, due to the production starring Robert Sheehan of Channel 4's MISFITS. Hey... if it takes a tv star who can also act well enough to get an impressionable audience into the theatre then that's fine by me - as Malcolm X said "By any means necessary"!Synge's freewheeling black comedy shows the effect on the locals of a small coastal town in County Mayo when, into their midst, stumbles Christy Mahon. Christy is a young man who tells them that he is fleeing from the police after killing his father during an argument on their farm.

Instead of turning him in, Christy becomes the most popular man in the village and in particular, is pursued by Pegeen, the daughter of the town's publican, and the Widow Quin, a tough old broad who is actually chasing Christy because Pegeen's boorish fiancee has asked her to steer him away from his intended. When Christy wins the local donkey race he truly can do no wrong in the eyes of his adoring public but in the middle of the celebrations, another stranger appears... Christy's father who he in fact only wounded.The villagers now turn on Christy, collectively embarrassed at their lionising a 'nobody' - Christy out of desperation attacks his father again but this only inflames the crowd more, even Pegeen denounces him as a liar and a charlatan. It's only the appearance of Christy's seemingly indestructible father that stops them lynching him!

Christy realises that his one chance for fame has passed him by and he dejectedly leaves the village with his father to resume his miserable life on the farm. It is only when he leaves that Pegeen too becomes aware that she has lost her one chance of true happiness as she dejectedly cries "Oh my grief, I've lost him surely. I've lost the only Playboy of the Western World."
Synge's dialogue still twists and turns through the plot, time and again a line of dialogue leaps straight into the mind making it hard to believe it was written 104 years ago!

Sheehan makes a brave stab at the title role - it's his stage debut - but he is more a bumbling eejit rather than the master of his fate that Christy needs to project and he was easily out-matched by Niamh Cusack as the voluptuous Widow Quin and the luminous Ruth Negga as Pegeen. In the past year Cusack was excellent in CAUSE CELEBRE also at the Vic and Negga was a sympathetic Ophelia at the National so it was great to see them both again.

Special mention to Diarmuid de Faoite as the permanently woozy Jimmy Farrell, his second act slapstick pratfall was worth the price of admission alone! Also eye-catching were Kevin Traynor as Pegeen's insufferable fiancee Shawn and Frank Laverty as Pegeen's publican father.

Scott Pask's set design for Flaherty's bar was a revolving delight and wasn't overly-set dressed to detract from Synge's verbal fireworks.

Famously the 1907 premiere at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin saw rioting in the auditorium by those shocked at Synge's portrayal of small town Ireland but while Joe Orton and Martin McDonagh have reworked his themes of the glamour of violent young men and the venality in the Irish character, Synge's play still rightly holds it's place as one of the most entertaining of early 20th Century classics as well as a lasting tribute to a writer who tragically died aged 38 of Hodgkin's Disease only two years after PLAYBOY was premiered.

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