‘Kill the author!’ yelled members of the audience, some of whom were punching one another. A toy trumpet was blown, and the actors on stage were drowned out by what one of them called ‘a veritable mob of howling devils'. They finished the play miming, their words obliterated amid the brouhaha and general pandemonium.
Such scenes are unlikely to be repeated at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, when its new production of John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World opens on September 9. The play’s first performances at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1907 were, however, literally a riot.
Much of the opprobium was sparked by a single word in Synge’s script – ‘shift’, meaning a woman’s undergarment.
Its use seemed to provocatively crystallise the play’s dark, explosive sexual energies, the primal urges attracting the five women in the cast who pursue the ‘playboy’ of the title, a farmer lad who claims he stoved his father’s head in with a shovel.
We’re less prudish now, more liberated, more inured to random acts of violence. But Conall Morrison, director of the Lyric production, believes that Playboy still packs a mighty punch for contemporary audiences, not least because so many of the play’s themes remain sharply relevant.
‘Love, sex, revenge, the raging passions of violence and desire,’ Morrison ponders. ‘All the energies in Playboy are so extreme, so remarkably overt. The sex and the violence are real, but they also function as metaphors for the whole mechanism of self-expression. In many respects the play is a paean to anarchy.
‘Not anarchy for its own sake,’ he clarifies, ‘but anarchy as a mode of self-expression, saying “If I break free of societal constraints, I can be anything.” Overall the play just liberated too much energy for its early audiences, saying “This is actually a good thing.” That was what alarmed people, and they had to recoil from it.’
So, does Morrison consider Playboy to be a kind of neo-Nietzschean tract, its anti-hero Christy an Irish Übermensch smashing the social and existential shackles that bind him?
‘It kind of is,’ he replies thoughtfully. ‘It’s beyond good and evil. It’s saying “Enter fully into the unbridled force field of your passions, your imagination, your rage and your potencies.” And that is still a radical thought.
‘Synge was actually dramatising,’continues Morrison, ‘how there were repressive forces abroad in general in the country, be it the Church, or publicans, or gombeen men. How the organised forces of society were trying to repress sexuality, or the imagination, or individuality. It’s a cruel satire on conservatism with a small ‘c’, on piety, on conformism, anything we find ourselves supine to.’
The outraged screaming of those early Abbey Theatre audiences is now consigned to history: Playboy has acquired iconic status as a classic text of world literature, and is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest plays ever written by an Irish writer.
In planning his new production, Morrison concedes there was a serious temptation to do something different with Synge's play, to make his Lyric staging stand out distinctively from the many thousands which have gone before it.
‘You go through all the usual nonsense,’ he comments self-deprecatingly. ‘You think, I’ll set it on the moon, I’ll set it on a submarine. But the more you talk about it the more the play speaks back to you and says “No, you don’t need to do that. I’ve done the thinking for you.”’
So no outlandish costuming for Morrison, no strange settings, no howling anachronisms in the new staging. His Lyric Playboy is firmly located in the rural County Mayo of its period, its style ‘fairly naturalistic', as he puts it, ‘but not cutesy, not “heritage"'.
One other aspect of Playboy there is no getting away from is the extraordinary quality of its language. Synge travelled extensively in rural Ireland, scrupulously noting down the sayings and speech inflections of its inhabitants. In Playboy he distilled these to an idiom reeking with an earthiness and raw poetry far distant from contemporary English usage.
Is it a linguistic style, I wonder, that modern Irish actors still feel intuitively at home with, over a century after the play was written? ‘Some of them more than others,’ Morrison replies. ‘But even if you’ve acted Synge before, the language is heightened, it’s compressed, it’s dense in the amount of texture and colour and expressiveness he’s crammed in.
‘So it takes a certain discipline to get on top of it, to fully honour it, it’s so rich and imagistic, so bejewelled yet also funny. But that’s one of the play’s many joys, because we speak such a debased language most of the time nowadays, squeaking at each other through text and Twitter and so on.’
Playboy is Morrison’s second production at the new Lyric. The first, his widely acclaimed staging of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, opened the new theatre in May 2011, garnering Morrison an Irish Times award for Best Director.
He is overwhelmingly positive about the new venue, and the pleasures of making theatre in it. ‘It’s fantastic, frankly,’ he enthuses. ‘I loved working in the old Lyric, but not so fond that I would swap it!’ he laughs, no doubt recollecting the cramped, Dickensian conditions of the new building’s fabled predecessor.
‘The facilities at the new Lyric are superb,’ says Morrison. ‘The light in the building is wonderful, the view over the river is great, the energy of the river going by, what that does to the imagination... It’s such a happy place to work in – you’ve got nothing to whinge about, nothing to hide behind.’
It is, in a word, an ideal environment for Morrison to present his take on a play he clearly views as one of the finest ever written. ‘I’ve directed a lot of plays,’ he reflects, ‘both classic and modern, and for me it’s one of the greatest.’
And why? ‘Because,’ he says, ‘of its capacity to unleash energies and passions on stage, an astonishing, kinetic life. It’s exhilarating stuff for the actors to play. And hopefully it will also be exhilarating to watch.'
The Playboy of the Western World runs from September 9 to October 7, 2012 at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.