The Playboy of the Western World

Reviewer's Rating

The ‘playboy riots’ stormed Dublin in 1907. In the States the play was greeted with boos and the stench of hurled vegetables. In Philadelphia the company were arrested. Synge’s poetic masterpiece, a mix of mutiny and conformity, has lost none of its power; and Folie a Deux – at the Southwark Playhouse – give it a bold, expressionistic take.
The fantasist outsider Christy Mahon boasts of killing his father. Yet ultimately, through deeds of derring-do, like Icarus, he flies too close to the sun. As Christy grows in bravura, so too does his belief in his own celebrity. The townspeople fete him like a hero and then turn on him as they come face to face with the very corporeal Old Mahon: ‘the wrack and ruin of three score years.’
Director Polina Kalinina’s expressionistic angle with clay-wash backdrop, echoic door-knocking and incessant unsettling rumble is sharp-edged, complete with punk-rock rendering of ‘The Mountains of Mourne.’ For the most part it’s an assured tack, but the staging of the atavism and ferocity of the play’s climax, is a missed opportunity.
Yet there are some winning performances: Sophie Dickson as the wild silver-tongued Pegeen Mike, switches her affections from steady Sean Keogh (a finely judged performance by Christopher Logan) to Ciaran O’Brien’s exuberant ‘Playboy.’ Dickson and O’Brien go with Synge’s musical cadences with a white-water thrill. Their rapturous penultimate scene is beguiling, brimming with honesty and love; ‘you’ll be an angel’s lamp to me.’
Indeed a production strength is the unified approach by the cast to the text as a musical score: nuanced, savoured and to be enjoyed. Greer Dale-Foulkes as the irrepressible Sara Tansey and Natalie Radmall-Quirke as the scheming, self-serving Widow Quinn also excel.
The minimal design, Emma Bailey, cleverly uses a couple of crates, stools and the infamous ‘loy’ – a potato spade – to suggest Pegeen’s shebeen. The clay-wash backdrop, created by the company at the beginning, frames the action, unified in the mud be-spattered costumes. You can almost smell the peat as design makes visual the power of suggestion.
Synge, captures the West Coast of Ireland in tooth and claw energy – everyone bargains with everybody else over sheep, grazing, land rights, employment and marriage; conveyed through a nod, a wink and the word. Nothing much happens, yet strange people from the madmen of Keel to the thousand militiamen roam the countryside. ‘Playboy’ is rooted firmly in a sense of place: Balina, Belmullet, Castlebar – more realism than symbolist.
The largely Nationalist audience, in 1907, objected violently to the portrayal of the Irish as gullible, backward; and of its women as ‘a drift of females standing in their shifts.’ Synge distils lyricism and earthiness through the spoken word. Christy’s crime is not his tall tales – the locals reaction to his patricide is ambiguous – but that they allow themselves to be duped. Pegeen’s father Michael remarks ‘a daring fellow is the jewel of the world.’ This is a daring production, with a fresh, theatrical twist.