Set in the west of Ireland, The Playboy of the Western World opens at night in Flaherty’s Pub, when Christy Mahon (Todd Gillespie) wanders in claiming to be on the run after murdering his father with a loy. His shocking tale thrills those around him, and the landlord (Adam Ó Chongaile) is so delighted by it that he offers him a place to stay. With his new-found celebrity status, Christy soon begins to attract the attentions of the local women, including the landlord’s sharp-tongued daughter Pegeen (Niamh Curran) and Widow Quin (Eleanor Booton). When things appear to be getting more serious between Pegeen and Christy, Shawnie (Nathaniel Hess), Pegeen’s admirer, hatches a plot with Widow Quin to marry Christy off to her, leaving Pegeen free for himself.
Director Eimear Ryan-Charleston’s use of the space is very well-pitched: Pembroke New Cellars is a tricky space to work in, with attempts to set the room up with a traditional stage and audience area not always successful. Here, those often blurred boundaries between actors and audience were completely torn down – the orientation of the theatre switched so that you reached the seats on arrival, which were set up in groups around tables, as though in a pub (with the detail of free cider to partake of as well). The actors were already present at the bar chatting and bursting into renditions of folk songs, making the atmosphere on arrival instantly one of raucous fun.
The decision to cast the play as a straight-out comedy is one which deserves mentioning: the script itself can be taken many ways, the most natural of which is probably something tragi-comic. However, unlike the ADC’s Hamlet earlier in the term, there is nothing in this script which makes a comedic take incongruent. The dialogue is for the most part wickedly funny, from the morbid curiosity about Christy’s murder to the open interest of the women in Christy, which caused scandal and public riots when the play first premiered. Both Niamh Curran and Todd Gillespie handled their characters’ more poetic and serious lines well, getting across some of the tragedy of their characters while the absurd situation goes on around them.
The acting was variable, with some pitch-perfect and enjoyable performances (Christy, Pegeen, Michael). Todd Gillespie’s Christy was the only non-Irish actor to properly nail the accent, with the others’ either being patchy or Irish themselves. For me, one of the biggest problems in casting was that of Nathaniel Hess as Shawny, the only actor who didn’t go for an Irish accent, and stayed English instead. This in itself wasn’t the problem - there was no reason why the character can’t be English, but the dialogue of the play is written in English which is very influenced by the Irish language and accent, and this made the words spoken in an English accent sound odd and disconcerting. It would have felt more natural to render the same words into an English or Anglo-Irish dialect instead.
The Playboy of the Western World may not be the slickest production you’ll see this week, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better-natured one. It’s funny, dark and at times absurd, and it held me completely captivated for the two hours I spent watching it. I’d encourage everyone to make a trip to Pembroke New Cellars to see the play that Arthur Griffith (founder of Sinn Féin) called, ‘a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform’ – you’ll find out just how wrong he was.
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