The Playboy of the Western World
J M Synge
Folie à Deux Productions
Southwark Playhouse (The Little)
I know John Millington Synge's play about a young man who gains kudos and female attention when he turns up on the run saying he has killed his father is considered a classic but I have never quite got it; maybe I have just seen the wrong productions. I hoped this one would be different.
When first staged at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1907, it caused riots, partly because it mentioned women’s underwear but also because it presents a negative picture of the Irish as ignorant, gullible and sozzled. It isn’t that cliché of Irishness that worries me but the plausibility of the plot, but perhaps that’s because, when I have seen it, it has been mounted naturalistically and taken too seriously.
For this production, director Polina Kalinina and her designer Emma Bailey set it with the audience on three sides of an empty space except for a small bench and a couple of stools in front of a black wall. This isn’t about place but about people. Michael Flaherty, in passing, mentions a notice over the door that says that the premises are licensed but there is no sign of he or his daughter Margaret (Pegeen) ever pulling a pint or of anyone drinking one.
The play opens with the characters bringing in buckets and beginning to wash the back wall, or is it to whitewash?—no, they are smearing mud on it. Interpret that any way you will, it makes a strong theatrical image.
One of them turns to stand tongue-tied, looking at observing the young woman on the bench downstage. She is Pegeen, he Shawn Keough, the lad she is engaged to (for want of a better). Christopher Logan gives him a spiky neurosis, Sophie Dickson makes her confident and not greatly interested. They set a pattern of clearly defined characters.
While costumes, every one of them mud marked, continue the directorial concept that presumably reminds us of the poverty and primitive nature of what one character calls the “lonesome West” of County Mayo. It is the people presented that hold attention even though their perhaps very accurate accents make them sometimes incomprehensible for, despite their idiosyncrasies, they feel flesh and blood.
Tom Marshall is Pegeen’s good-humouredly drunk dad, who is about to go off with some mates to a wake when the patricide turns up. Ciaran O’Brien’s Christopher Mahon, a tousle-haired little fella, looks an unlikely murderer but makes the most of the female attention his notoriety gets him from village girls and Natalie Radmall-Quirke’s young widow Quinn, whom Shawn encourages to distract him from interest in Pegeen.
Then Christy’s da shows up, bloodied and angry. Timothy Block makes him wild-eyed and raging, almost overdoing it. And there lies the rub for, though so far this seems a savage portrait of life on the backside of old Ireland, the plot’s escalation stretches credulity.
This production isn’t without humour, though the accents made it harder for some to pick up on it, but its naturalism still takes things too seriously. The whole thing needs treating as comedy. Synge, however affectionate his portrait of Mayo may be (much more real than the time’s traditional stage Irish), surely wants us to laugh at them.
The stylised opening (could it really be a tongue-in-cheek warning that you're in for a spate of mud slinging?) sets it up to permit much more pointed satire. One can see why it upset some of that 1907 Dublin audience but today surely we can take it without too PC a knee-jerk reaction.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton