Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
Producers: Dublin Theatre Festival & Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Textually, Oonagh Murphy’s nightmarish reimagining of J.M. Synge’s once contentious The Playboy of the Western World remains firmly rooted in the lonesome west of Ireland. Geographically and chronologically, it has shifted forward seventy-odd years to the Derry/Donegal borderlands during the 1980s, a time and place where random killings and abandoned bodies were routine occurrences.
As Brexit looms, fear of the return of violence again stalks these lands, a threat which Jane Deasy’s ominous soundtrack and Amy Mae’s stark lighting design vividly capture.
The play’s central conceit continues to be disturbing. A feckless young vagabond called Christy Mahon appears out of nowhere, boasting about having killed his father and dumped his body in a ditch. Far from being ostracised or turned over to the police, he is welcomed into an abandoned, inward-looking community, where drink, religion and a good story alleviate an otherwise dreary daily existence.
His very presence awakes all kinds of yearnings among the female residents of this remote, forgotten border area, especially a group of semi-feral local girls whose attentions towards him verge on terrifying.
The stench of alcohol and tobacco seeps from Molly O’Cathain’s drinking den set, a grim prison for the caged bird who is Pegeen Mike (a spirited Eloïse Stevenson), daughter of publican Michael James O’Flaherty (played with sad, sozzled realism by Charlie Bonner).
Trapped in this male-dominated milieu, her future marriage arranged with pious zealot Shawn Keogh (Michael Condron), her femininity surfaces in the pretty bedroom, glimpsed above the bar. But this is no place of refuge, as her privacy is regularly invaded by all and sundry, in search of concealment or disguise.
In the late 20th century, it is difficult to imagine women like the knowing Pegeen and the sexually predatory Widow Quinn (Aoibhéann McCann) putting up with it.
Some characterisations verge on cartoonish – not necessarily in a good way – and the Northern accented delivery does not consistently ring true with Synge’s rich, poetic text. Michael Shea’s weedy, timid Christy comes armed with a ripping yarn, but he relates it so unconvincingly that doubts immediately surface among the women who will jostle for his favours.
The play’s shocking climax turns out to be rather a limp affair, enlivened only by Frankie MCafferty’s sprightly intervention as Old Mahon, the senior half of a father-son double act, destined to wreak havoc wherever it lands.
Murphy has made some commendably bold decisions in offering up this new take on Synge’s morally flawed but enduring classic. Whether her radical interpretation enhances or skews the original, however, is a subject ripe for discussion.
Runs until 5 October, then at Lyric Theatre, Belfast from 8 October to 2 November.
A shorter version of this review was first published in The Stage on 30 September 2019.