Pumped by fame

Robert Sheehan is a not wholly convincing playboy.

Fans of Misfits (Channel 4) will already be familiar with the tousle-topped Robert Sheehan's charismatic blarney as Nathan, the superhero with an Asbo. In The Playboy of the Western World, currently on at London's Old Vic, he also riffs on the "outsider" theme.

In his professional stage debut he plays Christy Mahon, chancer and fabulist whose tall tales seduce the Western World, or Co. Mayo, Ireland. With perverse but ruthlessly consistent logic, the locals accord him celebrity status when he blabs that he has murdered his dad with a shovel. He's considered an ideal protector for the pub landlord's daughter Pegeen ("she'll be safe with a man whose killed his father"); he's lavished with gifts from the neighbourhood colleens ("feel the fat of that breast mister").

Precursor to the absurdist dramas of the 20th century, not to mention the surreal civic antics of Royston Vasey, J M Synge's Irish outpost is a community fuelled by poteen, where the mark of an excellent wake is "five men, six men stretched out retching." But it's also idiosyncratic, to say the least, when it comes to the law, and fearful when it comes to the Church - a warped morality is centred, or rather, off-centred, in the noticeably absent Father Riley.

In Synge's superbly constructed play, there are a number of reversals for the sweet-tongued Christy. As the story progresses the craic livens, and deepens. His father enters, very much alive. Then he dies again. Then he...well, you get the idea. At each turn Christy's fame, pegged to his "gallant story," ebbs and flows. Not only is the locals' opinion in flux, but also, crucially, his sense of self. He's pumped by fame, becomes a different person, and is "destroyed" (a favourite word in the Synge lexicon) when he stumbles from playboy to pariah.

John Crowley's production is pretty good on Irish atmospherics. The coastal shebeen, the site of the action, is exposed in all its lonely poverty. The designers come over all unnecessary, however, with the revolving stage, which performs a lumbering 360° between scenes to reveal only that the actor has changed his shirt. To be fair, though, baring the crib's backside somewhat stresses its isolation, here on the margin where the Western World runs out of land and into the sea.

The show starts, and restarts after the interval, to a bit of the old Pogues: folky, risqué Irish ballads which anticipate the musical deep structure of Synge's work. This very musicality, however, is a mixed blessing. Whole scenes pass, particularly towards the beginning of the play, when I was listening to the song but not the words. Caught up entirely in the contrapuntal inflections, we literally tune out. Which is a pity, because the tale of the playboy who "capsized the stars" is nothing if not lyrically beautiful.

Sheehan's role rather seems to cramp him; he appears to spend much of his time trying to make his coltish limbs look smaller. Making no great impression is oddly almost - almost - appropriate, since the piece is about the projected desires of onlookers, though I would have thought the onlookers needed a bit more to go on. He's tidily paired with fellow Misfit Ruth Negga as Pegeen, stony-faced in her stony pub. Kevin Trainor builds a subtle rhythm of timidity and sham as Pegeen's first suitor, Shawn. But it's arguably Niamh Cusack as the equivocal, pragmatic Widow Quin who propels the show, with her appraising looks and mannish manners. She canvasses for the playboy's affections, but with an eye for a bargain she's just as interested in Shawn's heifers and "the blue bull from Sneem".

As a woman, and a widow, she also has outsider status. In the world of the play "widow" is interchangeable with "hag." "Wait till you lay eyes on her leaky thatch," bristles the rivalrous Pegeen in her smear campaign.

Strong words; strong women. It's perhaps not too fanciful to give credit here to Synge's unsung collaborator and lover Molly Allgood, who has been all but deleted from the record. Fierce.

Show Hide image

The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood