THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD
The Old Vic, London, Saturday 26th November, 2011
This most famous play by Irish writer J.M. Synge gets a high quality revival at Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic. With an impressive, rotating set – almost a full-sized crofter’s house – and attention to detail, the community of gossips in County Mayo at the turn of the 20th Century are brought to life in such a way the relevance of their behaviour to the modern world is allowed to come to the fore. One might think Mr Synge was prescient.
A young man stumbles into this house – it is a public house- looking the worse for wear after walking for eleven days. The locals, keen for entertainment, speculate on what might have spurred him to make such a journey. It comes out that the young man is named Christy Mahon and has murdered his own father with a shovel. Mahon is awarded instant celebrity status within the community. Each time he recounts the story of the murder, details are added and embellished. As the story grows, so does his confidence and self-esteem, buoyed up as he is by this new-found adulation. The local girls fawn over him. The men respect him and barmaid Pegeen and the Widow Quinn vie with each other for his attentions and hand in marriage.
This state of bliss and popularity is short-lived: the supposedly dead father rocks up at the pub, his head in a bandage. The Widow Quinn, always with her eye on the prize (played with a Machiavellian twinkle in her eye by Niamh Cusack) tries to get rid of him. From this point the action relies heavily on dramatic irony. The audience knows without a shadow of a doubt that young Mahon is a fraud. The thing is we don’t mind in the least. He has become a charismatic and charming fellow whose declarations of love for the barmaid are touching and lyrical.
Inevitably, the all-too-alive dad comes back and Christy’s story is exposed as the lie it always was – just at the point where he is being feted for having won all the prizes in the local sports day. The locals turn on him in an instant. With his new life destroyed, Christy flies into a rage, chases his dad from the pub and administers a second, supposedly fatal blow. No one can accuse him of lying now, but still the locals aren’t appeased. Telling a story is one thing but actually committing the crime before their very eyes is beyond the pale. They decide to arrest Christy and drag him off to the “peelers” and an inevitable hanging.
And then the dad, his head shining with fresh blood, comes crawling in. Christy is doomed to return to his life before, but there is a change. He will no longer be the victim of his dad’s bullying and abuse. The tables have turned forever. The Mahons leave, their roles reversed, and this affable young man has become the monster from whom he was trying to escape. Pegeen the barmaid sinks to the floor, realising she had been caught up in the glamour and the gossip but nevertheless has lost out in love, the love of a man who didn’t really exist.
As Christy Mahon, Robert Sheehan (him off of Misfits) makes his professional stage debut and portrays the quivering, gangling youth who transforms into a likable braggart with just the right amount of mugging and gurning, tempered with vulnerability and charm. Ruth Negga’s Pegeen is stunningly beautiful and speaks with fire in her eyes and her belly. The whole ensemble, in fact, helps to create a sense of the wider community – a microcosm of today’s celebrity culture: we build ‘em up and knock ‘em down. Some are complicit in their own rise and fall, their pursuit of the bubble reputation.
Director John Crowley keeps the atmosphere light – until the third act but even here the humour is still present, albeit much darker in tone. I had some issues right at the outset with the opening duologue between Pegeen and her suitor Shawn – it took a few minutes for my ears to attune to the accents and the brogue, but then this can happen when watching Shakespeare too. That aside, I enjoyed the play very much, glad that I was able at last to see why it deserves its reputation as a classic, a reputation founded on fact rather than gossip.