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.