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.

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge