Dublin Theatre Festival 2019: The Playboy of the Western World
Cheap At Double The Price
Synge said of “The Playboy of the Western World” that there’s other sides to it if anyone cares to look for them. In Dublin Theatre Festival and Lyric Theatre’s co-production, Synge's words are seen as a challenge which director Oonagh Murphy gladly rises to. Delivering a seriously funny and robust production, Murphy’s take on “The Playboy of the Western World” finds it looking remarkably good for its age. Primarily due to top class performances, some relevant contemporary interrogations, and a clever redistribution of power within the play by shifting its focus.
In Murphy’s marvellously rich revisioning, which crackles with energy, the past looks like it’s on its last legs. And the future isn’t looking all that great either. Molly O’Cathain devilishly smart bar, with Pegeen’s illuminated room the only place of refuge, hints of a now and then and not so long ago, looking as jaded and faded as its isolated regulars. A community stuck between nowhere and nowhere else, where the women are wild, and the men imagine they’re in charge. As Christy Mahon stumbles in like a celebrity criminal having allegedly slain his father, he soon becomes the boy all the bad girls want. For Christy, or the idea of Christy, represents a trace of excitement, and excitement is notably thin on the ground in places abandoned by the rest of the world. A theme superbly reinforced by the village girls bearing gifts and wild laughter, looking mad, bad, and dangerous to know, living for a future that isn’t there. Meanwhile, the chastised and chastity driven past lies with the likes of the timid Shawn Keogh, the wilful Pegeen Mike’s betrothed. Yet with Pegeen and the Widow Quinn manspreading and squaring off for the love of the hysterical murderer, Shawn’s chances are looking slim. With the cult of celebrity bringing its inevitable rewards, Christy blossoms during his fifteen minutes of fame. Shame, however, is only around the corner, and a fall from grace bigger than a social media troll-fest. Yet if Christy has the final say, Pegeen gets the final word, showing more than a trace of subversive ambiguity.
Under Murphy’s astute direction “Playboy” remains a joyously funny comedy, with Murphy’s thematic commentaries being cleverly woven from its rambunctious fabric. A comedy in which Murphy smartly toys with the play’s power dynamics, leading to overt interrogations of gender. Take the notorious shift, ingenuously introduced by Murphy, which acknowledges the original riot when “Playboy” was first produced in The Abbey Theatre in 1907. Here the shift proves transformative, itself changed from what was formerly seen as a disgrace into a bestower of strength, ingeniously ensuring that power arises and remains with the feminine. If it’s a strong choice incredibly well played, its one that comes at a something of a cost. Dealing in long suffering, strong willed women trapped in a world of weak men, gender dynamics inevitably tilt towards older comic representations. Such as those of 70s and 80s sitcoms, which Aoibhéann McCann's hair wonderfully evokes. Comedies where stereotyped relationships, similar to those in Last of the Summer Wine, find hardened, masculine women and emotive, weak willed men being playfully exaggerated.
As a result, Christy’s playboy swagger never arrives until late in the day, with earlier interactions focusing on Christy’s panic. If this highlights a tendency for the play’s women to romanticise Christy, while foregrounding Christy’s pathetic nature, it comes at a cost, making his relationship with the no nonsense Pegeen difficult to buy into. If their connection finally arrives, also late in the day, it remains feeble at best, and the sense of loss never quite materialises. Leaving something of a hole in the heart at the centre of it all, undermining the play’s darker elements. Something Jane Deasy's composition tries to compensate for, only to feel lost and invasive.
Where Murphy’s “The Playboy of the Western World” looks practically flawless is in its detailed performances. Charlie Bonner as Pegeen’s father Michael, Tony Flynn as Jimmy, and Jo Donnelly as Philly each look like they’re trying to outdo the other in comic brilliance when it comes to playing drunk. Holly Hannaway, Megan McDonnell, and Hazel Clifford are shockingly good as the cackling village girls knowing they might be here for a long time, so they’re making sure it’s a good time. Michael Condron’s paragon of cowardly virtue, Shawn Keogh, a man who’d kick you when you’re down even if you didn’t feel it, delivers some well timed, comedy gold. Frankie McCafferty as Old Mahon, plays perfect foil to the hysterical Christy, a man whose panicked poetry proves just as effective as his tall stories at seducing some not quite so gullible women. All of which Michael Shea handles deftly in an animated performance as Christy, the imagined bad boy believed to make for a good man. Fully recognising that Christy has his moment, this production is never really about him. But about two strong women asserting their desires while drowning in a damp squib of a male universe. Exemplified by the warring Pegeen, a compelling Elöise Stevenson showing a hard edged vulnerability, and a superb Aoibhéann McCann as the chain smoking, selfishly scheming Widow Quinn, both owning every moment onstage.
In shifting emphasis towards the women of the play, Murphy shifts the way it's energies move. If the resulting gender dynamics prove remarkably fresh at times, they can often look uncomfortably familiar. In the end, Murphy’s playfully serious take on “The Playboy of the Western World” sees comedy stereotypes proving to be something of a double edged sword. Yet if Murphy’s victories come at something of a cost, they’re victories nonetheless, and cheap at double the price. Superbly funny, marvellously performed, and meticulously directed, “The Playboy of the Western World” proves wildly entertaining.
“The Playboy of the Western World” by J. M. Synge, in a co-production by Dublin Theatre Festival and Lyric Theatre, Belfast, runs as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2019 at The Gaiety Theatre until October 5.
Runs at Lyric theatre Belfast from October 8 till Nov 2.