The Playboy of the Western World

Patrick Moy and Orla Fitzgerald in 'The Playboy of the Western World' at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.

Patrick Moy and Orla Fitzgerald in 'The Playboy of the Western World' at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.

Patrick Moy in 'The Playboy of the Western World' at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.

Patrick Moy in 'The Playboy of the Western World' at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.

Conall Morrison’s Playboy has all the ingredients of the triumphant Crucible with which he opened the revamped Lyric a year ago. He has brought together an ensemble cast of newcomers and veterans, a great design team and a commitment to a style of performance that emphasizes the physicality of interpersonal relationships, achieving at times a balletic quality.

Playboy at the Lyric TheatreMonica Frawley’s design presents the single room in which Pegeen Mike (Orla Fitzgerald) tends bar alone. This is not a run-down shebeen, but a large barn of a place lit by a string of electric lights, a nod to modernity at the turn of the twentieth century, even here in the wild west of County Mayo. A cast iron stove provides one focal point; the rough table from which drink is served the other. The audience enter to the aroma of turf burning, honouring Synge’s insistence in the published preface to the play on the representation of reality. Against the blueish white walls, the performance becomes at times like a series of Rembrandt tableaux, with foot lights casting giant shadows on the back wall. Yet this is a production which is dominated more by movement than stillness. Three windows along the back wall, a door to an interior room, another to the yard outside, along with a loft space accessed by a ladder, provide for all the entrances and exits.

It is these comings and goings that drive the action, as the isolated interior world of the pub is subject to a series of interruptions from the world beyond its lintel, from the moment Shawn Keogh (Will Irvine) enters to woo Pegeen Mike and mentions the young man he heard moaning and groaning in a ditch along the road. It is this young man, Christy Mahon (Patrick Moy), who disrupts the status quo with the tale of how he murdered his father with a loy (which turns out to be a lie). Death features large in the outside world. Pegeen Mike’s father Michael James (Niall Cusack) and his drinking buddies, Jimmy Farrell (Sean Sloan) and Philly Cullen (Alan McKee) spend much of the time at a wake. The Widow Quinn (Bríd Ní Neachtain), Pegeen Mike’s rival for the affections of Christy, has already dispatched one husband. The fear of hanging has driven Christy to this lonely spot.

Playboy at the Lyric, BelfastThe scandalous fascination which Christy’s celebrity as patricide holds for the villagers reaches its apogee with his success in the sports. It is dashed when his father (Lalor Roddy) appears as if from the dead to confound the story Christy has spun. When Christy turns a gallous story to a dirty deed by apparently killing his father again, the villagers turn on him. Pegeen Mike, who only minutes before had exchanged her shrewish scolding for sweet words of love in Christy’s arms, leads the charge. With Old Mahon’s second return from death, the father and son are reconciled and they leave. The men are untouched by events, assuming a return to what passed for normal. Morrison, however, leaves us with the final image of Pegeen Mike collapsed on the floor centre stage, her animal howl echoing as the lights fade around her. 

This is one of many memorable moments in the performance. The entrance of the village girls through the window (and later out again) is another. Sean Sloan and Alan McKee give one of the best drunken entrances I’ve ever seen. Christy’s fall is completed as he listlessly allows the Widow Quinn and Sara Tansey (Susan Davey) to dress him in a yellow dress as an attempt to disguise and save him. Christy’s attempt to evade capture as he clambers around the room only to be eventually tied is a fabulous piece of tomfoolery.

Yet these moments accentuate the central problem of the performance and the script. While Synge clearly wrote for performance, too often the sheer verbiage of the dialogue holds up the action as characters take an age to speak. While the play focuses on the ways in which words can conjure up all sorts of reality, there are a number of points where the rhythm of the action breaks down into an unmotivated stillness as the actors plough through the lines. In the same vein, the actors’ grasp of the Mayo accent is so complete that at times the words are lost to the lilt of the voice and meaning evaporates. The actors too have some work to do to achieve fluency in the choreographed movements that have the potential to be such a highlight of the play. If such issues can be addressed, this might be not just a good production, but a great one.

Tom Maguire is a Senior Lecturer in Theatre Studies at the University of Ulster.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge

13 Sept - 7 Oct, 2012

Produced by Lyric Theatre
In Lyric Theatre

Directed by Conall Morrison

Set and Costume Design: Monica Frawley

Lighting Design: John Comiskey

Sound Design and Composition: Conor Linehan

Fight Director: Paul Burke

With: Hannah Coyle, Niall Cusack, Susan Davey, Orla Fitzgerald, Will Irvine, Mary McGurk, Alan McKee, Patrick Moy, Bríd Ní Neachtain, Lalor Roddy, Sean Sloan.