THE PLAYBOY of the Western World is one of the iconic plays in the Irish theatrical repertoire, its classic status undiminished in the 108 years that have passed since its much-storied 1907 premiere.
Galway audiences are especially familiar with the play as it has been a touchstone for Druid throughout its history, the company gracing us with some memorable stagings down the years. Other notable productions of the play to have visited here include one from the Abbey Theatre and Mustapha Matura’s Caribbean version, Playboy of the West Indies, which was a highlight of the Galway Arts Festival in 1994. The play’s iconic status is further bolstered by its status as a study text for countless English and drama students.
Next week Sligo’s Blue Raincoat Theatre Company come to the Town Hall Theatre with a compelling, fresh take, on Synge’s enduring masterwork. To quote from The Irish Times review: "Performed in an uninterrupted 90 minutes, this is a daring Playboy, swerving away from expected laughs to discover a darker, more jolting tale, elemental and strange."
A Playboy that's too 'girly'?
Interestingly, this is Blue Raincoat’s first time doing Synge, though artistic director Niall Henry did previously direct Playboy at the Peacock in 2002. He tells me what led him to revisit the play now.
“This production marks out a very different theatrical style for Blue Raincoat,” he notes. “The notion of doing it came up in a conversation about a year and a half ago with Jocelyn Clarke who I’ve worked with over the years and who’s always been good at suggesting plays for us to do. The last time I did what you might call a ‘normal’ play was that 2002 production of Playboy, so it has been a long time since we did a play from the familiar repertoire with a traditional structure.
"We’ve oscillated between doing new and devised stuff then, something like Ionesco’s The Chairs. Down the years we’ve tried to pick, with classic works, frames of reference or series of works that would help us devise or develop our own stuff better. We now felt it was time we went back and did a ‘normal’ play with clearer structures than a lot of the devised pieces we have been doing. And when I say Playboy is straightforward that isn’t to diminish it in any way.”
Henry outlines some of the artistic choices he and the company have made in their interpretation; “Firstly, we got rid of the village girls, mainly because we felt the play got very ‘girly’ when they were in it, for want of a better expression. When Sarah Tansey and the other girls are there they only have small roles so ultimately they are not that interesting, it seemed more interesting for us to see if the Widow Quinn can snare Christy. We also have a younger Widow Quinn just to set off the dynamic between herself and Pegeen.
"Finally, and the key thing, is that keeping in mind I haven’t directed a play like this in a long time, I had to go very slowly and that helped me try to make everything as honest as possible, so the focus would be all the time on the relationships and these people isolated out in this strange, dystopian place; it’s almost Beckettian if you look at it from a certain point of view. I wanted to concentrate on the truth of the relationships as best I could and whatever came out of that I was happy with, I let it go wherever it was going to. I wouldn’t have concentrated so much on the language of the play simply because it is not my area, I am not skilled in it, nor have I spent time in it. People have commented that the production seems very realistic, they buy into it, it’s not played up for comedy or overly poetic. That would have been purely due to the fact that the focus was on keeping it in real a place as possible.”
No one is innocent
The Widow Quinn is usually depicted as being older than Christy and Pegeen. By making her younger, Blue Raincoat find a different emotional dynamic for the play’s key relationships.
“It creates two different male/female relationships, between Christy and Peggy and another relationship equally needful on the widow’s part,” Henry observes. “At the same time there is a clear context and Widow Quinn articulates more clearly the ‘why’ of why she needs somebody. She is always outside that village community and she is more articulate in her own place emotionally. Her ‘gaming’ and manipulation and the trading she does with everyone seems to be the way she operates in the world. At the same time she actually has an objective, there is something she wants.
"The love between Christy and Peggy is more adult in our interpretation; there isn’t a Romeo and Juliet feeling to it. In that sense I think there are qualities of arrogance that come out in Christy as opposed to him being a guy who is victimised – if he is Romeo he is naïve, he is king of the town for a day, and you feel sorry for him when that is all taken away from him. Here he seems to be a little more in control of his own choices than usual. The one thing that strikes me is there are no good guys in the play at the end of the day, everyone seems to have committed a crime of some form or other.”
Blue Raincoat’s Playboy has a cast of eight, including Bob Kelly as Christy Mahon, Sandra O’Malley as Pegeen Mike, and Fiona McGeown as Widow Quinn. Also featured are John Carty, Peter Davey, Martin McGuire, Barry Cullen and Brian F Devaney, with costume design by Jamie Vartan and sound and video design by Joe Hunt.
The Playboy of the Western World runs at the Town Hall Theatre from Thursday October 29 to Saturday 31 at 8pm. Tickets are €20/18 through091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie