Theatre review: The Playboy of the Western World, Lyric Theatre Belfast
The Playboy of the Western World
A Lyric Theatre & Dublin Theatre Festival co-production, 2019
Written by John Millington Synge
Director: Oonagh Murphy
Cast: Charlie Bonner, Hazel Clifford, Michael Condron, Jo Donnelly, Tony Flynn, Holly Hannaway, Frankie McCafferty, Aoibhéann McCann, Megan McDonnell, Michael Shea, Eloise Stevenson
Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 12th October 2019
The Lyric Theatre in Belfast and The Dublin Theatre Festival promised a 2019 re-imagining of J.M. Synge's canonical play that caused a scandal when it was first performed in 1907, making this a Playboy for our times, but there's really nothing that radical in the production, no updating of the text or its archaic poetical Irish cadences. Nothing really needs to be updated however for The Playboy of the Western World to still have contemporary significance and if it doesn't appear to be as radical now s it once was, even that perhaps tells us something about the times we live in.
Playboy's notoriety lay in Synge daring to suggest that behind all the Irish romanticism of its self-image in art, poetry and literature, there actually lay a not-so-hidden fundamental savagery, a paganism that wouldn't be tamed by Christianity, a lawlessness that wouldn't be refined by civilisation. When he arrives at Pegeen's shebeen in a small town in Co. Mayo, Christy Mahon story of the sundering of his own father is regarded with an open admiration for his daring and his outlaw behaviour. His bad-boy reputation has all the girls of the place falling over themselves.
Which evidently didn't fit with the romanticised view of the Irish and their views on women back in 1907, leading to riots at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin when it was first performed. The behaviour of the proceedings would still seems unlikely and scarcely credible where it not for the fact that underlying human savagery would soon be revealed in the battlefields of Europe and taken to a new level, but it would still seem improbable that people would rally around an antihero were it not for the daily evidence in the news of quite a few populist fake anti-establishment playboys of the Western world, idiots to a man, being elevated to positions of power and authority despite their evident lack of honour and ability.
So it's perhaps not so much that The Playboy of the Western World has been updated here as much as the times have caught up with Synge's views. That tends to suggest that it's all taken very seriously but the Lyric Theatre production recognises that Playboy is a comedy and that it's the best way of making that point and getting anyone to take such an unlikely situation seriously. Pegeen's tavern is superbly designed by Molly O'Cathain for the necessities of the dramatic action, with a trapped-in-the-80s feel that makes it feel almost contemporary but also with a nod towards attitudes - and maybe a certain period of hedonism, chauvinism and glorification of violence - that are trapped in the past.
With the kind of dialogue and characters developed here by Synge, there's a danger of caricature and overplaying, but it was pitched perfectly by director Oonagh Murphy, establishing recognisable types that are still familiar in Ireland and doubtless elsewhere. In particular Michael Condron's Shawn Keogh, with his religious sentiments mocked as a cowardly response to reality, is superbly played with great comic play. But the play is richly characterised to give it a wonderful dynamic and there was lively, riotous acting from all the cast, each playing their role in what happens, taking responsibility for what they have unleashed and for what we are still paying the price for today.