Image courtesy The Lyric Theatre Belfast (here)
It's nice when I get to combine my work and my blog life, and every now and then I like to pop a post up that does just this. I had the pleasure of going to see the new production of J.M Synge's Playboy of the Western World at The Lyric Theatre, Belfast last week.
The play for those who aren't familiar is one of the centerpieces of the Irish literary Theatre, first performed in 1907 in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin it was the focus of riots. 40 Dubliners (W.B Yeats counted) outside the theatre rioted apparently about the use of the word 'shifts' (which at the time was a female undergarment), in fact much of the rioting was about the language in the play and its subject of patricide, a point particularly complained about by Arthur Griffith (the then Sinn Féin leader) who thought it was 'vile and inhuman'. The disapproval of the play really came down to Synge's subversion of the idealised Irish west country folk who had taken on the entire preserve of Irish national identity. He didn't show them in the idealised way which underwrote a lot of Irish literature and art, rather his subversion of the ideology surrounding the natives of the west of Ireland challenged audiences because at its core it made them re-evaluate an entire national identity.
The play became synonymous with riots, in a way it shares much with the current 'fear of offence' culture currently being policed by the Daily Mail on a daily basis. Like 'Sachsgate' (the famous Andrew Sachs answering machine debacle), those who hadn't seen the play sought it out or commented on it. The play's infamy even preceded it to the performance in America where it also met with riots. It came at a time where the national identity of pure Irish country peasants was a symbol of pride. For a middle class protestant boy to show them as something other than this was hugely explosive.
So when Playboy came to Belfast it may be without riot but its programming speaks to a similar cultural moment. The programming of The Plough and the Stars alongside it at the Opera House brings another play of the same era which experienced riots to the Belfast theatre scene. Whether happy co-incidence or planned both plays give a modern audience the ability to see what the fuss was about.
Playboy of the Western World, tells the story of a small community in the West of Ireland, a stranger comes into the community telling the tale of how he has killed his father and is on the run. Instead of being horrified and shunning him, the community are excited, he becomes a local sensation. Girls come from miles around to see him, he is a celebrity. Nowadays we live in a world obsessed with celebrity, gossip magazines give us lives served up on plates. Playboy speaks to this fervor, the want for excitement in this community sees them taking in his every word. The play's climax bears much resemblance to the ability of the newspapers of today building up to then cut down the stars which adorn its pages.
The production was strong, opening with Frawley's atmospheric set design, the scene was placed immediately. Even the smell of peat burning on the fire allowed the audience to mentally position themselves in this time period. For those who inwardly sigh at the prospect of a very classical rendering of Synge, Conall Morrison directs a powerhouse of emotion, farce and bawdy liveliness at them.
The cast were very capable, having no problem with the very wordy Synge dialogue. Patrick Moy and Orla Fitzgerald must be given mention as Christy Mahon and the tempestuous Pegeen Mike but the production's success was hugely based on the skill and ability of the ensemble cast who kept the pace high and the drive of the action moving. The great physicality of the production is a real achievement, from the fights to the speed and energy of the movement which at one point sees Christy (Moy) hanging from a rope in the middle of the stage. The production catapults around the small space of the set as if the life of it is about to overflow into the audience. The set feels too small for all the energy within it, which seems to create a fitting reading of the Irish peasant life so objected to by the original audiences of 1907. These are not quiet god-fearing simple folks, they're real and rambunctious, bawdy, lively and too much for the box they have quite literally been placed in.
Conall Morrison's direction brings to the fore the Caine quote 'you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off', the whole van was up in smoke and it was glorious.
Well done to the cast and crew of Playboy of the Western World, which runs at The Lyric Belfast until 7th October 2012
Get your tickets!