The Playboy of the Western World review: A freshly unsettling journey
Dublin Theatre Festival: It seems like a game that has spun out of control, where murder can be applauded if it is told well enough
Eloïse Stevenson as Pegeen Mike and Michael Shea as Christy Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World. Photograph: Mark Stedman
The Playboy of the Western World at the Gaiety Theatre. Photograph: Mark Stedman.
THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD
The Gaiety Theatre
Christy Mahon, the timid fugitive of The Playboy of the Western World, has finally headed north. In the Dublin Theatre Festival and Lyric Theatre’s co-production, this leads JM Synge’s famous father killer to a border-town bar in 1980s Northern Ireland, making for a freshly unsettling journey.
The shebeen, in Molly O’Cathain’s design, is a comically dismal place – sparse, tobacco stained, peeling - where the tedium of unpromising lives is broken by a stranger’s tales of violence, which grows in the telling to become acts of justified, self-determining struggle. At a time when similar rhetoric is having poisonous effect in the North again, the Playboy’s gap between “a gallous story and a dirty deed” becomes more charged in director Oonagh Murphy’s considered staging.
Murphy leaves the text alone: we are still in Co Mayo where neither the names or the voice have changed, Synge’s lyricism delivered unfussily in Northern Irish accents. What feels different is the emphasis, in which violence is a kind of fantasy, eagerly consumed but never quite believed - until it’s too late. (Even a pre-show announcer nudges at the cognitive dissonance, asking us to turn off our phones or “I will destroy you”). Like Pegeen’s bedroom, a framed domestic space visible above the bar, we seem to be somewhere between a dream and a prison.
Indeed, as Pegeen, Eloise Stevenson, reminds you that everyone is trapped in a warped, sustaining dynamic: it’s her physical threat that prompts a confession from Michael Shea’s cowering Christy. Later valorised by Charlie Bonner’s edgy inebriated Michael James, fetishised by awestruck local girls and toyed with by Aoibhéann McCann’s enjoyably crude, voluminously permed Widow Quinn, Pegeen’s taunting, cruel fickleness makes her the more formidable party. Murphy would prefer to highlight both the agency and adversity these female characters encounter, but leaving his oppressive father for another implacable tyrant, Shea makes Christy, for all his transformation, a slave to his patterns.
When Frankie McCafferty arrives as that “slain” father, bloodied, agitated, and more amusing for his muttered rebukes (“a stuttering lout”), it’s revealing that Old Mahon has also turned his stories into currency. Like father, like son.
Like many things in this brisk production that makes a particular phrase pop out: “making game” in which deception, abuse and humiliation are all sports to pass the time.
Even when Playboy turns gravely serious – in this staging in full view of the audience – it seems like a game that has spun out of control where murder can be applauded if it is told well enough, but if the rules change there is as much pleasure in tearing down heroes as building them up.
Synge, though, is unambiguous about his winners and losers: only one person will depart here transformed, and another will stay in wild lamentations. Murphy pushes against the grain of the play for a different outcome. If it doesn’t quite ring true, it’s because the skill of the production is to show how even bold attempts at transformation can lead us back where we started.