Theatrical: ‘The playboy of the western world’


This week sees the start of the annual Dublin Theatre Festival. Having purchased several early bird and preview tickets,  over the next month I shall be in regular attendance at the playhouse As my skills are finely honed at bargain hunting, I don’t think I will be paying more than a cinema price for any show. Tonight I went to see a revival of the classic play ‘The playboy of the western world’ by John Millington Synge at the Gaiety Theatre.

It is a three-act play  first performed at the Abbey Theatre 1907. Set in a pub on the west coast of Ireland during the early 1900s, it tells the story of Christy Mahon, a young man running away from his farm, claiming he killed his father.

The locals are fascinated by his story more than they are condemning of his murderous act. Christy’s tale captures the romantic attention of the bar-maid Pegeen Mike, the publican’s daughter.

Riots occurred during and following the opening performance of the play, which were stirred up by Irish nationalists and republicans who viewed the play as an offence to public morals and an insult against Ireland.

Those were different times.

This production seems to be a fairly conventional retelling of the story – save for the modern dress of the characters. The poetic language style of the original is maintained throughout.

About halfway through the show a thought struck me. Was this play still relevant to a 2019 audience? From a narrative point of view of course it is – it is an engaging story about fictional characters and events. This play however is treated like a sacred cow of Irish theatre. Regarded as a theatre classic from a time just before independence, ‘Playboy’ product of the Irish literary revival of the late 18th and early 19th century. You can see why it would strike a nerve on its release. The people of the fictional village are venal, shallow, and opportunistic. You can understand (in theory) why nationalists might be angry at such a portrayal of poor, rural catholic farmers by an Anglo-Irish jackeen toff like Synge in a time before independence. If this play was written a century later Synge would be condemned for cultural appropriation due to the increasingly censorious behaviour of people whose sensibilities must be respected at all costs, and where a writer is expected to care about not causing offence to his readers.

The play is set in an Ireland that no longer exists. We are now independent – the south anyway. The shackles of imperialism and catholicism have been discarded (to be replaced by neo-liberal capitalism). Synge is now a writer of his time and his reputation faded when writers like Sean O’Casey and Brendan Behan and Roddy Doyle burst into consciousness telling more truthful stories, steeped in their actual lived experience.

Nevertheless ‘The playboy of the western world’ struck a chord. Not for its commentary on Ireland or the mores of the nation in 1907. Rather because of how the shallowness and amorality of the characters remains relevant. In 2019 the cult of celebrity and reality TV, creates heroes out of people who have achieved precisely nothing. Christy Mahon achieves renown for murdering his father.  The villagers celebrate him for the scandal he has caused, but turn on him when it suits them. In the world of Twitter outrage this is prescient.

The production is strong, funny and fast paced with strong central performances from Michael Shea (as Christy) and Eloise Stevenson (as Pegeen). The split level set is striking.

It is an entertaining production of a classic play that runs at the Gaiety Theatre until October 5th. Recommended.





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