The Playboy of the Western World
Conall Morrison's 'constantly stimulating' take on JM Synge's play retains an anarchic edge
Of all the classic dramas written by Irish playwrights – Wilde, O’Casey, Shaw, Beckett, Behan, Sheridan – Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World is arguably the most difficult of all to stage effectively.
Is it a comedy? Sort of. Is it satirical? Maybe. Anti-clerical? Depends what way you look at it. Should we admire the central character? A little, probably. Does it advocate sexual freedom? No comment.
Add to the many questions the play raises a ‘Synge-song’ style of language unfamiliar to most modern listeners, and a set of social mores and attitudes distantly embedded in 19th century rural Ireland, and you begin to sense how tricky it must be to ‘pitch’ Playboy comprehensibly to a 21st century audience.
Conall Morrison, director of the Lyric Theatre's new staging of Playboy, wisely avoids applying his own glosses too obviously on a piece already bristling with ideas, abstractions and provocations.
Set-wise, he certainly plays it straight as a fiddle, the grubby, grey-washed walls and drably functional furnishings recognisably re-creating the ‘shebeen, very rough and untidy’ specified in Synge’s original stage directions.
Monica Frawley’s costumes are similarly of the period, economically conveying fine distinctions between the simple peasant attire worn by the women, the suited father respectfully smartened up for wake attendance, and the wilder, leather-jerkined ‘playboy’ Christy Mahon, wreaking merry havoc among the local Mayo peasantry.
Within this broadly realistic setting Morrison looks to the inner poetry and pulsing natural rhythms of Synge’s richly allusive language to dictate the pace at which his staging of Playboy unravels.
Niall Cusack’s cream-curdling Mayo accent leads the way linguistically as Michael James, father of Pegeen Mike, and proprietor of the grubby drinking den his cronies Philly Cullen (Alan McKee) and Jimmy Farrell (Sean Sloan) like to soak their livers in.
The craven, feckless Shawn Keogh, Pegeen Mike’s feeble suitor, is neatly contrasted by Morrison with the rougher-mannered older men, and played with endearing whimsicality by Will Irvine.
The hardest chaws, however, are undoubtedly Synge’s women characters, spearheaded by the brashly sensual Widow Quin of Brid Ni Neachtain, who wants the playboy for herself and lets him know it in no uncertain terms.
Morrison has fun choreographing the hyperactive antics of the three village girls who drool over Christy with virtually pre-lapsarian libidinal frankness. It’s the kind of tingling, pertly trammelled sexual excitement that so incensed Playboy’s early audiences, and Morrison catches it precisely.
And what of ‘playboy’ Christy Mahon himself? Patrick Moy injects the part with oodles of the necessary charm and charisma, perhaps sacrificing a modicum of raw animal magnetism in his desire to make the character predominantly likeable. That’s understandable, however, and crucial to balancing the negative impression made by Christy’s initial introduction of himself as murderer of his own father.
Morrison’s careful calibration of the villagers’ generally unfazed reaction to this morally shocking news is largely convincing. He makes their titillated curiosity believable, their admiration of this cocky ‘playboy’ (best understood as ‘wide boy’ or ‘chancer’ in Synge’s context) a natural reaction in rural climes where little happens on a daily basis, and the unexpected is automatically a point of animated interest.
The relationship between Moy’s Christy and Orla Fitzgerald’s Pegeen Mike is less convincingly presented. Put simply, there’s too little obvious chemistry between them, making it difficult to understand why Christy cleaves to her, when the blandishments of the other village women are more immediately apparent.
It also dilutes the dramatic impact of the play’s famous conclusion, where Pegeen keeningly laments, ‘Oh, my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World.’ It feels in this instance uncomfortably as though she might have taken a little more trouble finding him in the first place.
Act Three careers along at a heady velocity, fired by the splendidly untamed performance of Lalor Roddy as Old Mahon, Christy’s suddenly undead, bloody-coxcombed, and rampantly up-in-arms paterfamilias. Morrison is again notably successful in these closing pages in catching exactly why Playboy so thoroughly unsettled its Abbey Theatre audiences in 1907.
The rage of contending passions, the simmering sexual tensions, the apparently ungovernable social manoeuvrings of the characters – this is a dangerously anarchic Ireland that Synge is showing, stripped of constabulary control and priestly authority. Unsurprisingly it caused panic. Much of that rebel yell remains in Morrison’s new Lyric staging, which makes for consistently stimulating viewing.
The Playboy of the Western World runs from September 9 to October 7, 2012 at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.