The week’s best plays: Asking for It and Playboy of the Western World

Louis O’Neill’s Asking for It is revived for the Gaiety, while Playboy crosses the Border

Asking for It
Gaiety Theatre, Dublin. Oct 9-26 7.30pm
Emma O'Donovan, a fifth-year schoolgirl with brittle self-esteem, has become accustomed to seeing herself through a cascade of images: a beauty to be fussed over by a neurotic mother; the "queen bee" of her Cork school; a social media darling and even billboard model. But at a pivotal moment in Louise O'Neill's 2015 novel Asking For It, she doesn't recognise herself in a stream of degrading images, widely shared online. "She is an It," Emma says of the subject, herself, the victim of a gang rape. "She is a thing."

In this gruelling production by Landmark Productions and the Everyman, written by Meadhbh McHugh in collaboration with director Annabelle Comyn, Emma is again startlingly objectified, split between the competing perspectives of small twitching community, the media, online trolls. That fracture informs Comyn's striking production, an unsettling anatomy of rape culture, divided uneasily between the flaring energy of youth, excitingly depicted, and the suffocations of a hypocritical society, which finally swamp and overwhelm the story. "I belong to those other boys, as surely as if they have stamped me with a cattle brand," says Emma, in the end as comprehensively "ruined" as the subject of a Victorian "fallen woman" novel. The idea that victimhood is for ever, though, is also a facet of rape culture: neither O'Neill nor the show are immune to harmful images.

Playboy of the Western World
Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Oct 8-Nov 2 7.30pm (Sat & Sun mat 2.30pm)
Christy Mahon, the timid fugitive of The Playboy of the Western World, has finally headed north and so has this cross-border co-production. 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. In a comically dismal shebeen – sparse, tobacco stained, peeling – the tedium of unpromising lives is broken by the stranger's tales of violence, which grow to become acts of justified, self-determining struggle. At a time when similar rhetoric is having poisonous effect in the North again, that makes the Playboy's gap between "a gallus story and a dirty deed" more politically charged in director Oonagh Murphy's considered staging.

When even a pre-show announcer nudges at the cognitive dissonance of diverting ideas of violence, asking us to turn off our phones or “I will destroy you”, aggression seems to be all fun and games until someone loses a life. Where Michael Shea’s self-made Christy will eventually be transformed, though, Murphy’s sharpened focus on Synge’s female characters struggles to suggest the same of Eloïse Stevenson’s hardened Pegeen. No longer captive Synge’s prescribed “wild lamentations”, her character seems to finally break out of the play more than her circumstances. 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.