Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

playboy of the western world

Playboy Of The Western World At The Shaw Festival

Tá bearna mhór idir scéal gallda agus gníomhas salach.
J. M. Synge

The Shaw Festival is giving J. M. Synge’s groundbreaking 1907 play, Playboy of the Western World, a sturdy production under the direction of Jackie Maxwell in the Studio Theatre that bears her name. Maxwell was the artistic director at Shaw before the current AD, Tim Carroll, took over in 2017.

Playboy is widely considered the greatest theatrical achievement of the Irish literary renaissance. It also strikes me as the progenitor of a strain of black humour on the Irish stage that lives on today in the work of Martin McDonagh.

First, a vocabulary lesson. The “playboy” of the title is not a louche libertine but more of a scalawag or an amiable con man, and the “western world” is the windswept shores of Ireland’s west coast, the Gaeltacht or Irish-speaking region of the island. When Synge wrote Playboy, the region was a true backwater, barely touched by the new technologies of the young twentieth century.

Although born of well-to-do Anglo-Irish stock, Synge steeped himself in Irish culture and spent time on the Aran islands immersed in the rhythms of Irish English. One of his goals as a dramatist was to capture the poetry of that dialect and represent it on the stage. He did it remarkably well and Maxwell’s cast by and large rises to the challenge. Dialect coach Jeffrey Simlett earned his fee on this one.

Playboy of the Western World tells the tale of Christy Mahon (Qasim Khan), who stumbles into Michael Flaherty’s (Sanjay Talwar) ramshackle shebeen, managed by his comely daughter Pegeen Mike (Marla McLean), somewhere in County Mayo where he confesses to having killed his “da” with a single blow to the head with a sort of spade, called a loy in the local dialect.

Far from being horrified, the locals are oddly captivated by this tale of patricide and as word spreads local girls begin to arrive to catch a glimpse of this raffish new arrival. The attention brings Christy out of his shell, but despite the obvious interest of the local girls and most especially the advances of Widow Quin (Fiona Byrne) who clearly has matrimonial designs, Christy only has eyes for Pegeen Mike.

Complicating Christy’s growing affection for Pegeen is the fact that Flaherty wants her to marry Shawn Keogh (Andrew Lawrie), a milquetoast of a man whose love for Pegeen is as ardent as is her disdain for him. Even worse, Christy’s “da” (Ric Reid) shows up, bloodied but unbowed and out for revenge on his miscreant son.

Maxwell has done a decent job of staging Playboy in the less than ideal confines of the Studio, cavalierly dispensing with the illusion that Flaherty’s pub has four walls when the action moves outdoors.

While there are some weak spots in the cast, the talent is solid where it matters – in the central roles. The always reliable McLean makes a formidable Pegeen Mike and Khan does well by Christy, even though he is not quite the heartthrob the role seems to call for. Byrne is suitably crafty for the ever-so-transactional Widow Quin and Ric Reid is quite simply superb as the elder Mahon.

I took issue with Maxwell’s decision to set the play in the 1950s. Was it to make it easier and cheaper to costume the cast? That shouldn’t be an issue for the Shaw Festival. To my mind, the time shift added nothing and sacrificed a great deal. The mythopoetic aspects of the play, with its echoes of Oedipus, work better when set against a backdrop of an Ireland which seems almost as pagan as it does Catholic.

Moreover, Synge’s peasants were dirt poor, their garments of the meanest sort. In their tight-fitting dungarees and fifties skirts and tops the girls of this Playboy looked positively middle-class and their reactions to Christy’s purported crime seemed correspondingly misplaced.

The costumes, along with the minimalist set, were designed by Judith Bowden. Lighting designer Kevin Lamotte did some nice work including providing a clever segue from Act One to Act Two. Samuel Sholdice did the just right sound design.

This may not be the definitive production of Playboy of the Western World, but it will suffice until the next revival at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.

Playboy of the Western World runs at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre through October 7, 2023. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Shaw Festival website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *