Hen & Chickens Theatre, London – until 8 July 2017
Guest reviewer: Maeve Campbell
Backstage during three momentous Abbey Theatre productions, W.B Yeats’ Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), J.M Synge’s Playboy of the Western World (1907) and Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars (1926), Yeats and Lady Gregory ponder the state of the Irish nation, and are every time interrupted by future revolutionary Patrick Pearse. An interesting idea, but not fully realised in Neil Weatherall’s The Passion of the Playboy Riots.
The script isn’t terrible, but often drifts into didactic and dry territories. A lecture from Yeats on the 1815 corn laws provides useful context to those not as well versed in Irish history, but does not make for thrilling theatre. There are also several awkward anachronistic moments that stand out. Would Yeats really have said ‘everyone’s a dramaturge these days’ in 1907? Furthermore, there is strange emphasis on historical hearsay, including allusions to Pearse and pederasty that feel flippant and irrelevant.
The script’s failings are evidenced in the performances. Both Loclann O’Grady, who bears a striking physical resemblance to Yeats, and Cath Humpreys as Lady Gregory seem to struggle in selling the character’s convictions. Neither actors seem confident with their lines, which often sound like recitations of famous speeches rather than friendly conversation. Justin McKenna is convincing as the square Patrick Pearse of 1902, and shows a clear change in character by 1907. However, perhaps goes too far in making his development seem almost villainous in comparison to the passive Yeats and Gregory.
There are problems too with the design. The set is minimal and works well as a space for the actors at the beginning of the play. The plastic axes and buckets brought in later are incredibly distracting, and when used are too little, if any effect. A curtain hangs at the back of the space and Yeats and Gregory lean round to hear audience reactions to the controversial plays. These reactions are played back to us, but the sound recordings are so poorly mixed that they jar against the actors’ live performances. The device only really pays off when Yeats delivers his famous ‘You have disgraced yourself again’ attack to the audience at The Plough and the Stars. But again, delivered through a curtain as a recording, the line sounds a little absurd.
Weatherall seems to have the best of intentions in making this play, but the characters ideas and intentions are wholly unclear. The pressure of living up to the three dramatic masterpieces at the backdrop of the play, emphasises the script’s shortcomings more obviously. The play relies heavily on historical gossip and thus fails in educating it’s London audience.