26 Mar 2017

Playboy of the Western World, a play for the 21st century.

UPDATE Next weekend, April 1st and 2nd, On May 10-12 I'll be performing in J.M. Synge's Playboy of the Western World. The play is considered one of the great works of Irish literature (a very coveted field - it would be no exaggeration to say that Irish literature is possibly the most prolific in the world), and caused riots upon its premier in the Abbey Theatre in 1907, led by one of the founders of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffiths.

Collage of images from our photoshoot.
Photos: Explore Home Photography 

The main objection was that the comedy portrayed a sexual side to Irish people, that some would preferred remain taboo. Two characters Sara Tansey and Honor Blake are openly flirting with the title character Christy, with dialogue dripping with double entrendre:


HONOR.  And I brought you a little cut of cake, for you should have a thin
stomach on you, and you that length walking the world.

NELLY.  And I brought you a little laying pullet -- boiled and all she is --
was crushed at the fall of night by the curate's car.  Feel the fat of that
breast, Mister.

CHRISTY.  It's bursting, surely. [He feels it with the back of his hand,in
which he holds the presents.]

SARA.  Will you pinch it?  Is your right hand too sacred for to use at all?


One particular line uttered by Christy towards the end of the play was quoted as sparking the riot that overshadowed the opening of the play:

"It's Pegeen I'm seeking only. And what would I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing there in their shifts itself, maybe, from this place to the Eastern World?"
He's basically saying he would care if he could choose a girl from a underwear catalogue (a 'shift' was a woman's undergarment), he would still choose the girl he has fallen for. Within a lifetime, this idea was so quaint that Father Ted would satirise the idea of a festival designed to portray Irish women in a not dissimilar way ("Of course, they all have lovely bottoms").

A drift of chosen females
Looking past the scandal - an unfortunate side effect of the Irish Independence movement's close ties to the Catholic Church in opposition to British protestantism, a poisonous relationship that would retard Ireland's development for decades after partition - the play gained popular traction very quickly, likely because of it's exquisite dialogue, full of lilting musicality and timbre, while capturing the breadth of the Irish colloquial vernacular.

PEGEEN -- [with disappointment.] -- And I thinking you should have been living the like of a king of Norway or the Eastern world. [She comesand sits beside him after placing bread and mug of milk on the table.]
CHRISTY -- [laughing piteously.] -- The like of a king, is it? And I after toiling, moiling, digging, dodging from the dawn till dusk with never a sight of joy or sport saving only when I'd be abroad in the dark night poaching rabbits on hills, for I was a devil to poach, God forgive me, and I near got six months for going with a dung fork and stabbing a fish.
What I immediately picked up from this reading of the play (my third performance, but first as the lead) was the similarity to a certain occupier of the White House. In the play, a newcomer with a great command of words sweeps up the locals and they heap their praises upon him, until it turns out that his words were not matched by his deeds, and they turn on him with venom, causing him to utter the words:
"Shut your yelling, for if you're after making a mighty man of me this day by the power of a lie, you're setting me now to think if it's a poor thing to be lonesome, it's worse maybe to go mixing with the fools of earth."
I wonder if anyone else will be having such epiphanies in the next four years?

It is a very challenging piece for an actor, because of the lyrical quality of the writing - the lines become very tongue-twisty, and difficult to memorise exactly. As I mentioned, this is the third time I'm performing it so I was very familiar with the tone and pitch, but it's the first time I've played Christy. The last production I was part of, Thomas Finnegan was Christy, and he was revelatory, with a towerful of energy that he brought to the part, which he won an award later in the year for. He has since been a mainstay on the Lyric stage, a personal ambition of my own, which shows the esteem the part is held in.

"I just riz the loy and fall the edge of it on the ridge of his skull!"

Our production is on in the Crescent Arts Centre for three performances on April 1st and 2nd, with a matinee on the Sunday at 2pm. Tickets can be purchased here


The new production is on May 10-12 (Doors 19:30) in the Roddy McCorley Historical Society, Glen Road Belfast, BT11 8BU. Tickets can be purchased here