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Theatre review: Playboy of the Western World

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General

10.10.2011

Prestat and our luxury chocolates have a long association with the theatre. Loyal customers include such theatrical greats as Sarah Bernhardt in the 1910s and Sir John Gielgud and Dame Peggy Ashcroft in the 1950s – joined today by Olivier Award winner Adrian Lester. Neville Croft, former owner of Prestat, was a playwright whose writing career was sadly curtailed after drunkards interrupted press night of his West End play All Year Round in October 1959. In memory of Neville Croft, we now publish the occasional theatrical review.


The Playboy of the Western World at The Old Vic

The Playboy of the Western World famously caused a near riot when first performed in Dublin in 1907 and the first hurdle is to get across to a modern audience why the original outraged so.

Young Christy Mahon arrives in bar of a backwater coastal Irish village and, on announcing that he has murdered his father, is feted by the women of the village. He is an interloper welcomed into the community in the same way as Paul is by the Kittredge family in Six Degrees of Separation. The difference is that no-one is more surprised at Christy’s success than Christy himself.

The play, written by Irish playwright J.M. Synge, seems intent on ridiculing the rural community and mercilessly highlights the villagers’ gullibility and naivety. The play, however, is more than a mean-spirited joke. It is a coruscating satire on a community living in emotional and physical isolation; and politically damning of a society that creates such a community.

Dublin society was appalled but how to get that shock across today to a multinational London audience whose reference points for Ireland may only stretch to Ryan’s Daughter and Father Ted?

The production at The Old Vic creates a sense of isolation with the grey interior of the village bar – no sign of luxury chocolates here – built with dry-stone walls occupying an otherwise empty stage. And it lets you know it’s Irish through and through with actors speaking in accents as thick as sods of peat. Unfortunately, this makes the dialogue terribly heavy and I was forever chasing the meaning of sentences.

It wasn’t a great surprise, therefore, that a good part (say, 15%) of the audience left at the interval. That’s a shame as the second act is better and there’s much to praise in the production. But it’s a fair criticism to say that the director has sacrificed accessibility in a search for authenticity.

The major attraction, of course, is Robert Sheehan (the star among stars of Channel Four’s Misfits) as Christy Mahon. The man is the epitome of a beautiful, dishevelled, errant waif in need of mothering and it would seem a natural casting but this is Sheehan’s stage debut. Taking on the role is more ‘off-the-continental-shelf’ than ‘into-the-deep-end’ and it proves a daunting task, bravely tackled but unconquered. He’s best at the finale when emotions let fly and he breaks free of the tension that previously restricted his performance.

Niamh Cusak provides excellent support as the Widow Quin but Ruth Negga goes wide of the mark as the primary love interest Pegeen. There was an eloquence and presence to her but, as with the wider production, the sense that here was a woman hobbled and made foolish by the constrictions of society – exposed by the peculiar intrusion of Christy Mahon – was sadly missing.

Chocolate rating: 2½ violet crèmes out of five

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