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A CurtainUp LondonReview
The Playboy of the Western World
The first performance of the The Playboy of the Western World saw some of the worst riots in theatrical history on its first night in 1907 at the Abbey Theatre Dublin. The audience hissed and stamped their feet, sang patriotic songs and shouted "Kill the author!" There were fights and demonstrations at every performance until 500 police, "as thick as blackberries in September", were brought in to quell the trouble.
The main causes of contention were the unsentimental way in which Irish peasant life was portrayed, what Sinn Fein called "the foulest language we have ever listened to on a public platform" and the comic treatment of supposed manslaughter. The indecent language was the use of the word "shift", a woman's undergarment, worn next to the skin which polite society called a "chemise" but which, like the word knickers, had naughty connotations. It was WB Yeats who advised John Synge to go to the Isles of Aran to observe the people and their language. Yeats said, "Express a life that has never found expression. Live there as if you were one of the people." The result is a lyricism of speech in Synge's work which not only sounds beautifully rhythmic but is evocative of a special Irish turn of phrase.
Set in County Mayo by the coast, the play opens in the cottage home and small bar of Michael James Flaherty (John Rogan). His daughter, Margaret called Pegeen Mike, (Derbhle Crotty), is young and beautiful but unmarried and with a sharp tongue. Her suitor is the timid Sean Keogh (Paul Hickey), her second cousin. Christopher Mahon, called Christy, (Patrick O'Kane) arrives at the pub. He is, a tinker, soaked to the skin and hungry, on the run from the police after having killed his father. Christy's story of killing his bullying father makes him an object of fascination for the women and girls of the small community. The widow Quinn (Sorcha Cusack) dubs Christy "the Playboy of the Western World." Christy and Pegeen are attracted to each other. The arrival of the supposedly dead Old Mahon provokes a fight between father and son, Christy actually attempts the murder that brought him such attention. The villagers assume that the old man is dead and try to hang Christy and even Pegeen turns on him. The father is not dead and he and his son leave together, the balance of power having shifted, and with Pegeen regretfully stating "I've lost him surely. I've lost the only Playboy of the Western World."
Robert Jones' atmospheric set fills the Cottesloe stage It is as realistic an Irish croft as you could find, from the thatched roof to the smoking chimney. Lit initially just by firelight and then slowly brightening with candles, we can see the rough plaster and a few sticks of bare wooden furniture. Fiona Buffini's direction provides some moments of fine suspense such as the wild rainy night of Christy's arrival and the scene when the barefoot girls hide behind each other, torn between curiosity and fear, as they ask Christy "Are you the man that killed his father?"
The performances are near faultless: Derbhle Crotty as the feisty Pegeen, who finds and loses love tragically in what is called a comedy. . . John Rogansplendidly animated as her father. . .James Ellis as the vulgar, spoil sport, supposed corpse coming back to life, not once but twice. . . Sorcha Cusack as the devious, man-hungry widow who takes a fancy to the young fellow. Paul Hickey is most amusing as the feckless suitor. Patrick O'Kane in the Christy role, is at first pathetic but grows in confidence with his notoriety. His final very physical scenes are heart rending.
It is surprising how interesting The Playboy of the Western World is to modern audiences and to compare Synge's writing with other instances of recent Irish drama by Frank McGuinness or Conor Macpherson. The National production is a benchmark for this play about reputation, the fickle nature of celebrity and lost opportunity and as Synge put it, about the richness of the nature of the Irish peasantry.