Upon it’s premier at the Abbey theatre in Dublin in 1907, John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World was opened to riots owing to its perceived derisive and libelous perception of Irish people and was described as a ‘vile and inhuman story told in the vilest language ever listened to in a public forum’ with some authors calling for Synge to be killed. Nowadays, a reaction like that would undoubtedly fill the theatre to capacity with every attendee wanting to see what would cause such a vociferous response.
This play certainly does not pack the socially divisive punch of its 1907 premier but within the beautifully crafted and mellifluous words, therein lies a dark heart.
The production, currently at the Old Vic and directed by John Crowley, centres on the character of Christy Mohan, played by the impish Robert Sheehan who you may well be familiar with if you’ve had the opportunity to see channel 4’s angst-ridden-teen-superhero-drama-cum-comedy Misfits.
Sheehan’s Christy wanders meekly into a local tavern, and tells a tall-tale of murdering his father. This disingenuous story of patricide immediately transforms the cowardly Mohan in to a local celebrity and the object of affection from some of the local women. He takes a particular shine to Pegeen, played with sternness and vigour by Ruth Negga and charms his way, on the basis of his new-found tough reputation, to obtaining a job at the very tavern Pegeen earns her keep as a bar maid.
Christy, to the amusement of the audience, indulges in his new found fame by desperately trying to embody the gallant and murderous playboy by retelling ad nauseum, how the scene of his father’s murder played out, and subsequently impressing a bevy of young women much to the irritation of Pegeen.
Sheehan’s performance as the eponymous playboy is accomplished and at times very funny. He has a great, lank physicality that he uses to comedy effect as he portrays an idealised version of himself. His charm in deceit was worked to hilarious affect as he tries to cling to his fabrication and the characters around him become totally bewitched until a significant plot development seeks to scupper his plans.
This was however, far from being a perfect production. There were occasions, perhaps owing to my ominously early onset of depleted hearing, where I missed tracts of speech which was mainly owing to my ears taking a while to adapt to the rhythm and thickness of the Irish accent. I was also a little disappointed that the play’s dark theme of a young man lying about the murder of his own father and consequently becoming a local pariah and hero was not explored through Christy’s character. Christy undergoes a significant transformation and the climax is really meant to bring home the dramatic transition and embittered maturity of his character. The tone however remained the same; jovial and light, entertaining but, and I am reluctant to say this, largely forgettable.
Now don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the performance; the stagecraft was excellent and the language was of a beauty that was at times worthy of comparison with Shakespeare. But this is not a performance that will linger around in the memory for very long, which is saddening given the strength of the material.
The Playboy of the Western World runs until 26th November