The Passion Of The Playboy Riots

Neil Weatherall
Hen and Chickens Theatre

Justin McKenna, Loclann O’Grady and Cath Humphrys
Cath Humphrys and Loclann O’Grady
Justin McKenna

Anyone interested in the connection between theatre and politics would be drawn to Neil Weatherall’s The Passion Of The Playboy Riots. Its subject matter is exciting but unfortunately the play does not really work dramatically.

Derived from the writing of W B Yeats, Lady Gregory and Patrick Pearse, who all made important contributions to the cultural and political development of Irish nationalism, it imagines their encounters backstage at the performance of three controversial plays.

At the 1902 production of Yeats’s play Cathleen ni Houlihan, which urged young men to give up their lives for Irish Independence, Pearse (Justin McKenna) arrives with his own plays. He hopes they will interest Yeats (Loclann O’Grady).

They don’t. Yeats thinks them simple minded, and their author rather naïve about British treatment of Ireland. He tells Pearse, “the Tories and the Unionists justify making Ireland’s laws for us by saying that the Irish are too feckless to rule themselves.”

Lady Gregory (Cath Humphrys) is more encouraging and takes Pearse to meet some of their sponsors.

When the three meet in 1907 at what has come to be known as the “Playboy riots”, it is Pearse who is more militant as he denounces The Playboy of the Western World.

The final scene takes place in 1926 as nationalists are protesting a performance of Sean O Casey’s account of the 1916 Irish uprising in The Plough and the Stars. By that time, Pearse is dead having been executed by the British for his part in the uprising.

Yeats and Gregory find themselves in conversation with the actor playing Pearse in O’Casey’s play.

Although Neil Weatherall’s play has selected some key moments in theatre history and touched on a number of important arguments about the struggle for Irish independence, it doesn’t really dramatically engage.

In part, this is because neither the characters nor their encounters seem real. Instead, the play too often seems like a series of awkward quotes sitting side by side without any depth. It doesn’t help that the cast are given a static presentation that often makes them look as if they are uncomfortable with the performance space.

Then there are a number of unexplained distractions. I didn’t understand why Yeats starts wandering round with an axe and why does he at one point seem to suggest that Pearse is a paedophile?

These and other oddities may have been necessary but as they stood they simply added to the impression of an unfinished play that needed attention if it was to work.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna