Synge out loud

 

The Abbey is about to stage a new version of The Playboy of the Western World, in which Christy Mahon has become Christopher Malomo, a Nigerian refugee. Roddy Doyle, who has adapted Synge's iconic play with Bisi Adigun, explains why he loved teaching it in Kilbarrack, where his students competed to re-enact the parts.

The best thing about The Playboy of the Western World is the voices. The thing is full of culchies. It's a teacher's dream. Try finding enough students willing to read the parts in Hamlet.

"Hands up who wants to be Laertes."

Hands stay down; eyes hit the desk. You're standing in front of a roomful of very shy aspiring vets and accountants. Not an actor or a chancer among them. But come back in six months with the Playboy.

"Hands up who wants to be Shawn Keogh."

"Sir!"

"Sir!"

"Me, sir!"

"Sir!"

"Me, me, me, me, me!"

"What about the Widow Quin?"

"Oh God, pick me!"

I was an English teacher for 14 years. I spent hours, days, months trying to convince young people that the irony in Persuasion was worth their attention.

"There's a good laugh on the next page, I swear."

I spent hours and days trying to convince them that Wordsworth wasn't an eejit - "They're only flowers, Sir. Calm down." That Yeats wasn't an eejit - "Sir? Why didn't he just ask her to go with him?" That every sentence and line they read wasn't, automatically, the work of an eejit.

It was a constant fight. I stood at the front of the room and said: "Open up ________"(Choose any one of the following: Persuasion, The Charwoman's Daughter, Heartbreak House, most of the pages in Soundings, The Portrait of a Lady, The Greatest of These - and the list goes on. The horror!)

The command to open the text was always followed by a groan. A real groan. The dreadful, wet sound of young minds being squeezed. I was killing these children.

But there were plenty of good days. The students were easily convinced that Shakespeare was the business. They loved Edmund. They loved Lady Macbeth. They loved Iago. They loved Wuthering Heights. They loved Heathcliff and Cathy. They loved hating the other characters. They loved the passion and the cruelty. They loved Lord of the Flies. They loved Piggy and the "stuff" coming out of his head. They loved the posh English boys shoving, hitting - killing each other.

"Sucks to your asthmarr!"

They loved the fact that these kids could have been themselves; they loved the honesty of the book, the language and the simplicity of the story - the theme: children, given the chance and the island, will eat one another.

And they loved - God, they loved - The Playboy of the Western World.

"Sir!"

"Sir!"

"Me!"

It was, at first, the opportunity to do the voices. The room was suddenly full of Christys and Pegeen Mikes. Even the girl I chose to read the stage instructions became a culchie, an RTÉ continuity announcer circa 1981. "Impty barrels stind near di counter."

It was mad, wild stuff. A laugh. These Dublin kids got it out of their systems. Every garda who'd ever told them to move their arses, every teacher who'd ever looked sideways at them, every priest who'd ever let his Mass go over the 35 minutes - they all got a slagging in the first few pages of the Playboy.

"Where's himself?" Shawn Keogh, "a fet ind fair young min", is the first male character to walk onstage. In the first few days of reading, Shawn came from Kerry, Donegal, Galway, Offaly, Limerick, Wexford and, bizarrely, Scotland. One boy in the class could do a good Sean Connery and decided not to waste it. "Where'sh himshelf?"

James Bond had just walked into the shebeen, but Pegeen Mike didn't even look up. If I remember correctly - and I probably don't - the first Pegeen Mike, having beaten off the opposition, decided to stick with her own accent. So, for the first five or six pages, Pegeen Mike Flaherty, "a wild-looking but fine girl", came from Briarfield Grove, Kilbarrack, two minutes from the Dart station.

"Isn't ih long the nights are now, Shawn Keogh, to be leavin' a poor girl wi'h her own self countin' the hours to the dawn o'day?"

James Bond's response was lost in the roars and wolf whistles.

It was fun, but not much else, at first. The first few pages were very slow. Pegeen's shopping list on the first page seemed unnecessarily verbose, and we were expected to watch her write it. And what did those words mean? "A hat is suited for a wedding day." Did she want a hat? And what was a hat doing on a shopping list? Where were the eggs and the bread? And why all the names on the first two pages? Philly Cullen and Red Linahan, the mad Mulrannies and Father Reilly, Marcus Quin, "got six months for maiming ewes". It was one line, stop, next line, stop, just like reading Shakespeare for the first time, until they got the hang of it, until they could see it, and hear it, and it began to make great sense. Along the way, it was often hilarious.

One of the great successes of my career in teaching came to me unexpectedly, when Shawn Keogh delivered the line "I'm after feeling a kind of fellow above in the furzy ditch". The Shawn that morning was from somewhere near Kerry, but his accent fell away when he got to "fellow"and he realised what he'd just read, and the other 29 boys and girls in the room realised what he'd just read, and the silence - it lasted less than a second - became a cheer that became a bigger cheer, and bigger, and Shawn Keogh looked at his desk, and under his desk, for the hole he hoped would swallow him whole, and burp. And, after the laughter died and Shawn Keogh rediscovered his spine, I never before saw such keen scholarship; every student was flying through the pages, looking for more lines like that one. I hoped the principal or vice-principal would walk in now; I hoped anyone would walk in. I was listening to the sound of utter concentration. I had control and engagement. And I had silence. No threat or bribe would ever again be as effective. And I had it, the sound of well-used silence - it's very, very rare - for two long minutes, until someone found Shawn Keogh's line about "the naked parish" - "What page, what page?" - and that started another scramble. Then someone else found the Widow Quin talking about "the gallant hairy fellows are drifting beyond", and that got me up to the bell and the coffee break. I bought myself a Twix.

At first the language of the Playboy was as far away from these Dublin kids as the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Even the simple question "What kind was he?" from the Widow Quin needed a good looking at before it became "What was he like?" or something nearer their words. "There's harvest hundreds do be passing these days for the Sligo boat." Again, it needed staring at. What was a "curiosity man"? And what did "Tuesday was a week" mean? But, as with Shakespeare, the staring was well worth the time. "Harvest hundreds" brought a story about one girl's grandfather, who went from Donegal to Scotland every year to pick potatoes. And, more than 20 years later, I still meet former students who smile and say: "Tuesday was a week."

The Playboy was a hit. It wasn't just because they could become culchies for the day. They copped on to the story, and, unlike the language, the story was immediately theirs. I taught the Playboy in the early 1980s, when many of these kids were going to join the "harvest hundreds". The play was about people on the edge of the rules, and the kids I taught knew that place. Today that part of north Dublin is often featured in the property sections - the schools, the sea, all the recently discovered amenities. Back then it looked much as it does now, but, more than once, I saw the word "ghetto" used to describe it. It was no more a ghetto than Ranelagh, but these kids knew the hurt of being written off. They knew the power and fun of language; language was one of the things they owned. Slagging was a sport and an art. The best slag I heard was this: "Your granny'd climb out of her grave for a half-bottle of gin." Change it a bit and it could be a line from the Playboy; it might even have been in the first draft. It's a Playboy line because the Playboy is a slagging play. The slags fly across and back across the stage. Pegeen Mike and the Widow Quin, the big women of the play, are particularly good at it - "There's poetry talk for a girl you'd see itching and scratching." Slagging is a huge part of the play's energy. Shakespeare knew a well-aimed slag. So did Synge. And so did my students.

And they knew a great story. "Tell us a film," I'd say to one particular student when I was feeling lazy, and he'd stand up and deliver the plot of whatever video he'd watched the night before. I'd seen some of the films; he was much, much better. It wasn't just entertainment. I could see that on his face, and I could see it in the faces of the others watching and listening. It was vital; it was power. He had them. These minutes might have been the high point of his life. It's not just the plot of the Playboy. It's the man in the middle, Christy, telling the story, making himself up, assembling himself with words. I don't know what age he's supposed to be, what age Synge had in mind when he made him cough offstage, before he walks on, "a slight young man . . . very tired and frightened and dirty". He's a teenager. (So is Pegeen Mike.) He's lost and he's shy. But he talks; he makes up his story. He's listened to, and he has power.

Then there's Christy's story. "Wasn't I a foolish fellow not to kill my father in the years gone by?" Sophocles only had it half-right. No true Irish boy wants to sleep with his mother. But killing the da is a different proposition. "I just riz the loy," says Christy, "and let fall the edge of it on the ridge of his skull." Once they knew that a loy was kind of a shovel and that riz meant lifting it over his da's head, all faces in the room lit up. These were teenagers, and all fathers are eejits, and worse than eejits. What else would you do with a shovel? Christy was their man. Better yet, the dead man walks onstage. The play has become a horror film, one of those really funny ones. Then Christy gets to fight his da again, and he wins again. Old Mahon takes his beating and likes it. Christy pushes him offstage, and follows him. "I'm master of all fights from now." For the boys in the room, the play ends there. The girls read on, to Pegeen's lament - "I've lost him surely" - but the boys are offstage with Christy.

The fears of the boys and girls, their dreams, their current selves - they're in the Playboy. And - a must for all good school texts - as we read or watch, we see the central characters grow out of their pain, and learn. The first time we see Christy he's gnawing a turnip. By the end of the play he's biting Shawn Keogh's leg.

I loved teaching the Playboy; it more than made up for Persuasion. It's a great school play because it's wild and perfect, much like the average teenager.

The Playboy of the Western World previews at the Abbey, Dublin, from September 29th, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. See WeekendReview for a festival supplement. This article was first printed in Synge: A Celebration, edited by Colm Tóibín (Carysfort Press, with DruidSynge)