J M Synge’s tragicomedy The Playboy of the Western World is deeply rooted in the wealth of Irish folklore that Synge was so passionate about. His 1907 play tells the tale of a young man, Christy Mahon, who stumbles into a village pub one night and reveals to the villagers his story of patricide. Overnight the townspeople transform Christy into a local hero, and, delighted with his new identity, he weaves himself deeper and deeper into his own deceit.
The Playboy of the Western World explores the idea of an individual’s yearning for heroics, for the brave and the courageous, for the worshiped Self. Not only is this repeatedly seen in mythological tales where figures attempt to build themselves into heroes and heroines, but it is seen in contemporary cinema, TV, literature, and in society itself. This yearning becomes a psychological need – the fallible human being finds himself embellishing tales, portraying himself in the most flattering light.
…a primal play, dealing with man’s basest instincts and desires.
These unconscious desires of the individual grow to produce the desires of a community. Communities expect to be, in Joseph O’Connor’s words, “scandalized and titillated” by the happenings of the world. This expectation is rampant in our modern global community, and insatiately fed by the content of our tabloids, magazines, news, TV, etc. We constantly engage ourselves in worlds and selves that are not our own, as do Christy and the villagers. And so The Playboy of the Western World becomes a primal play, dealing with man’s basest instincts and desires.
A barrier in director John Crowley’s production is the thick idiomatic Irish accent. To the untrained ear it is dense and at times obscures Singe’s incredibly rich and beautiful language. Nonetheless, the accent locates the play squarely in rural Ireland and creates a mood of longing; a mood which hangs upon the concept of the story. The Playboy of the Western World can be seen as an elegy for the lost ideal, an idea poignantly delivered with the play’s last line: Pegeen Mike’s wail, “I have lost the only playboy of the western world”.
Robert Sheehan plays a skittish Christy. Head-over-heels in love with Pegeen (Ruth Negga) and desperate to be someone, he blindly leads himself into the hysteria and heartbreak of the ending scene. While Sheehan’s Christy might seem dopey next to the more manipulative figure of the script’s original Christy, Sheehan’s is one who unknowingly plays with himself, creating a more interesting and dangerous situation.
The production runs at The Old Vic until 26 November.
Tickets from £10
Images courtesy of The Playboy of the Western World