Sometimes you forget what you have seen and what you haven’t (or is that just me?) The Playboy of The Western World by J.M. Synge falls into that category as I can’t quite identify whether I’ve watched a production, or simply read the text, or studied it at some point, or just simply skimmed through a summary or read reviews. Whatever the case I certainly knew the bare bones of the plot and certain elements of it were already rattling round in my consciousness.
I was struck by just how “Irish” this play seemed and, in some senses, how stereotyped the characters are. But bearing in mind it was first performed in 1907, it is probably more the case that it helped to set some sort of template for what we now erroneously perceive as typical of the country. Whatever the case, it is easy to see where Samuel Beckett and Martin McDonagh went for some of their inspiration and even the writers of Father Ted have used it as a reference point. I think it also highly appropriate that the production is by the Druid Theatre Company based in Galway and are thus performing a piece based on their own heritage. The recording hails from 2005 when artistic director Garry Hynes presented the first ever staging of Synge’s entire theatrical canon (admittedly not that large) in a single day. The other productions are also available to view but Playboy is, as they say, the big one.
The plotline is actually very straightforward. A young man, Christy Mahon, stumbles into a shebeen (a small rough public house) claiming his has killed his own father with “a single blow”. This captures the attention of the owner’s daughter, the no-nonsense but disillusioned Pegeen Mike. Mahon also attracts the notice of Widow Quinn and, indeed, all the young girls of the village especially when he wins a donkey race and becomes something of a local hero. But Mahon becomes a victim of his own quickly assembled legend as, like Gogol’s Government Inspector or Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, he begins to believe in the exaggerated fictions he tells about himself (a “playboy” in this instance seems to mean a teller of tall tales) and his hold on the village quickly unravels.
The setting by Francis O’Connor is absolutely faithful to that specified in the text and conjures up a world of peat bogs, mists and mysterious fairy kingdoms just outside the door of the shebeen. This is complimented by the muted colours of costume designer Kathy Strachan and the diffused lighting of Davy Cunningham. Garry Hynes’ direction exhibits a faithfulness to the text in line with the notion of presenting all Synge’s plays in a definitive fashion. However, my overwhelming impression is of a lot of the cast doing a great deal of shouting for much of the time. Whether in anger, surprise, frustration, etc. the volume seemed to be always turned up to eleven and was in danger of diminishing some of the performers’ work.
The part of Christy calls for a special kind of actor, one who has good comic timing, can also play for pathos and is believable as a romantic lead. Aaron Monaghan fulfils his brief wonderfully. At times he has the wide-eyed innocence of Chaplin or Laurel and makes it all too believable that he gets caught up in his own truth bending. Catherine Walsh takes no prisoners as Pegeen Mike, demonstrating a young woman clearly frustrated by her surroundings and the foolish men she has to deal with.
It is clear that she will be the practical one in the relationship though, for a time, she becomes just as much of a fantasist as the interloper. Nick Lee as Shawn Keogh, plays the local wimp with an eye to the comedy but acting honours probably go to Marie Mullen (something of a Synge specialist if the website is anything to go by) who, thankfully, makes Widow Quinn less of a one dimensional character than she could probably be. The rest of the cast really make up the numbers but truth to tell there is little more that they can do with the village men being perpetually drunk and the village girls being perpetually star struck with Christy.
And this raises an interesting aspect about the play as seen through the 2020 lens. Christy is feted in much the same way as the modern day celebrity. He has made the gossip circuit and his deed is celebrated in the sort of prurient way that might attract the interest of a celebrity magazine or the worst recesses of the internet. As soon as his fantasies are exposed, he is censured and in danger of being hanged for his new heinously unacceptable crime of fantasy and deception … as opposed to the original, murder. So, in that sense, it is still very much a play for today.