When The Playboy of the Western World as first performed at the Abbey theatre in Dublin in 1907, it didn't go down well. In fact, it sparked a riot among the audience.
Set in the early 20th century, this darkly comic play explores the fascinations and frustrations of country life. It follows the fate of Christy Mahon, a runaway, who finds himself a guest at the pub belonging to Michael James Flaherty. By confessing to killing his father, he unexpectedly becomes hero of the local town, and the love interest of Flaherty's daughter Pegeen. Christy acts as a mirror for the people of the town, building his boastful stories upon their own desires, only to have them turn on him when he finally tries to live up to their ideal.
When first performed, the play was attacked by members of Sinn Fein, including founder Arthur Griffith, as a slight on Irish womanhood. The sexuality of the two dominant female characters, Widow Quin and Pegeen, undermined the image of the chaste Catholic nation that was being carefully constructed by the new nationalist movement. The female characters in the play certainly were not the paragons of female virtue expected in the newly opened Irish National Theatre, something that comes across very clearly in John Crowley's new production at the Old Vic.
By creating this comedy, contemporary critics alleged that JM Synge was mocking his working class characters from an anglicised middle class perspective. In reality, while there is an element of mockery, there is also genuine sympathy for the characters within the play. In Crowley's production Ruth Negga manages to skilfully combine Pegeen's strength and stubbornness with innocence.
The language the characters use is lovingly constructed to make the most of their dialect, and celebrates its richness of expression. In the new show Robert Sheehan as Christy successfully weaves poetic language into everyday conversation.
JM Synge was writing at a time when Irish nationalism was struggling with identity, giving rise to many different ideas about culture and particularly religion. Synge may have harboured elitism, but his play made a massive contribution to the flourishing of drama in Ireland. It was key to breaking through the idea that Irish culture had to be constrained by the conservatism of the Catholic church.
Crowley's production successfully draws out the comic elements of the play with some excellent physical performances. The only part where this production falls down is that having been an energetic farce throughout, the darker elements of the play, particularly the ending, are lost. However, this production achieves something unique by being very interesting and beautiful at the same time as being extremely funny.
The Playboy of the Western World is at the Old Vic Theatre until 26 November