The Playboy of the Western World – Gaiety Theatre – Review
By Diana Perez Garcia
Until October 5th, 2019
Part of the Dublin Theatre Festival
Venue – Gaiety Theatre
I turn to my friend during the interval of Oonagh Murphy’s update of Synge’s classic to ask him what he thinks of it so far. When it comes to The Playboy, my friend is best described as an exacting fan. On my part, to say that I love Synge’s text is an understatement. I would probably crack your skull with the edge of a loy if you dared question its brilliance. “I am enjoying it hugely,” he says, a smile plastered on his face. And when I press him to elaborate, he adds that the main reason for his enjoyment is that “they are not f**king it up.” As an assessment of the production up to the end of Act II, my friend’s insight lacks the sweeping and startling poetry of Synge’s tragicomic farce, but it gets to the heart of the challenge faced by anybody bold enough to attempt its staging.
In the now, more than one hundred years since it was first staged, The Playboy has acquired a mythical stature to rival its characters’ own mythmaking powers. Synge’s text is so layered and his vision so bold that potentially there are as many ideal versions as heads you can count in any given audience. Murphy, who recently faced a similar challenge with her adaptation of The Magic Flute, has decided to foreground the plight of her female characters and, particularly, Pegeen’s (Eloïse Stevenson), to direct our attention to the politics of respectability and the “fear of women having real agency in their lives” that “set the tone for the decades after the establishment of the Irish Free State.” This approach is arguably behind both the strengths and weaknesses of this production.
There are plenty of reasons in Synge’s text and in the history of its staging to warrant Murphy’s feminist vision; not least amongst them its early audience’s rioting at what they considered Synge’s smear on Irish womanhood. That event alone clarifies the identification of the fate of the nation with that of its women that coloured nationalist politics in the lead up to Independence and beyond. Through his portrayal of Pegeen Mike and the Widow Quinn (Aoibhéann McCann), Synge sympathetically, but also unsparingly, highlights the tribulations and limitations withstood by women in rural Ireland. The harshness and loneliness of their lives is amplified by his hinting at these women’s phenomenal capabilities and potential, as reflected in the active role they play in fashioning the much-diminished Christy (Michael Shea) of the beginning of the play into the emboldened hero of its final act.
Molly O’Cathain’s costumes and set bring us to the 1980s, and the player’s Northern accents shift the play’s location from rural Mayo to an undetermined border town. This time shift resonates with Murphy’s intention to highlight the lasting effects of cultural nationalism on the lives of Irish women. The change of location may add a veiled layer of sectarian violence.
The set, dominated by a drab palette that brings to mind years of neglect, and furnished with the kind of items that characterise the mid-20th century aesthetic of any godforsaken Irish pub worth its salt, is particularly well-judged and effective. It serves Synge’s naturalistic but expressive vision well, highlighting the characters’ isolation and desperation. Above the bar, a bedroom, decorated in sickly pink pastels and partially veiled with a lace curtain in the first act, serves as a reminder of the oppressions of domesticity and of the loneliness experienced by Synge’s characters.
As movement director, Paula O’Reilly has created a choreographed swagger for her female cast. This is an intelligent choice and particularly evident in Aoiobhean McCann’s performance as the Widow Quinn, a character charged with steering the many twists and turns in the farce with the wit and adaptability of an entrenched survivor.
The physicality of McCann’s performance highlights that she is the one who “wears the trousers” in the play (literally here; a pair of tight stonewashed jeans.) Any time she is paired with Christy he seems to shrink in size before our eyes. Michael Shea is slight in build, but he also embodies Christy’s bumbling timidity well.
In The Playboy, her power is only stymied by Pegeen’s cutting and guarded exterior; an armour garnered throughout years of looking after an alcoholic father and a godforsaken pub. In her performance, Eloise Stevenson communicates this with coiled intensity, matching McCann’s swagger with her own brand of quieter toughness.
Special mention must go to Megan McDonnell, Holly Hannaway and Hazel Clifford as Sara, Susan and Honor respectively. Every time they enter the stage, it lights up with their vitality and excitement. With their 1980s attire and earthy mischief, they act like excitable pagans at a disco.
Ultimately though, the greatest reversal and the greatest measure of the power of the play occurs in its startling conclusion and, unfortunately, to maintain her own vision, Murphy sacrifices the exhilarating and affirming force of Christy’s final turn. In her version, Christy’s departure is rattling and unconvincing, making him appear like a delusional fool rather than one transformed by the power of language and imagination. On her part Stevenson delivers Pegeen’s final words with deliberate sarcasm. It is disappointing to see this thoughtful and, in many ways admirable, production collapse in its final moments. The Playboy may be a farce but the tragicomic ending Synge devised for his thwarted lovers is deadly serious. Like a cracked skull, the play splits in the middle at its conclusion and Christy’s triumphant pledge to “become master of all fates from now on” is Pegeen’s tragic loss when she sees her own creation wander off leaving her to bitterly endure in drudgery and isolation.
Running time: 2 h 15 mins with an interval