FringeReview UK 2017
Nearly a year after five of the same cast tackled a superb Translations at Brighton Little Theatre one of them, Nick Roche, now directs J M Synge’s 1907 masterpiece there, The Playboy of the Western World. He’s assisted by Felicity Clements with fine set designed and constructed by Steven Adams exuding a picturesque pub snug. Beverley Grover’s lighting brightens the outdoors to flood daylight into the dimmer foreground.
J M Synge’s 1907 masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World arrives at Brighton Little Theatre nearly a year after five of the same cast tackled their superb Translations. One of that cast, Nick Roche, now directs too, assisted by Felicity Clements with set designed and constructed by Steven Adams exuding a picturesque pub snug. There’s a neat balance between verisimilitude – water’s repeatedly poured into a pail to an alarming degree – and picturesque evocation of Mayo. Beverley Grover’s lighting brightens the outdoors to flood daylight into the dimmer foreground.
The comic, profoundly subversive premise, that a man can become what people think of him, reflects quizzically on recent versions of alternative truth. Synge asks just how far someone’s placing themselves in a role impacts on new acquaintances, and how they refract this back through a laughter-distorting mirror. Roche suggests though that it’s also ‘a declaration of faith in the power of story-telling to shape our lives and create a collective intelligence.’ Roche knows what he’s about, and brings a life studying this play to his pace and breathing of Synge’s devastating comedy.
Christy Mahon (Nik Balfe) arrives to disrupt the dull inevitability of Margaret Flaherty’s life – Charlotte Atkinson whose feisty, tender ultimately tragic Pegeen Mike (as she’s mainly called) wins at least the audience’s hearts. Pegeen’s affianced to a man-mouse, Shawn Keogh (Benjamin Taylor). Christy declaring he’s killed his ‘da’ or father, quickly becomes the focus of awe and ultimately admiration to this corner of Mayo, particularly of the women who compete over him. He swells with the telling and this somehow enhances him in reality: he proceeds to win all the sporting events towards the end of the play.
His father, Old Mahon (John Hartnett) though deeply cloven in the head, isn’t dead after all. When he arrives, a real coup, he’s kept at bay by Widow Quin (Dee Forest) who’s prepared to give up her designs on Christy for various cows and other vantage, and endeavours to keep the father ignorant of his son’s existence. When things unravel there’s another fight and two volte-faces, which transform the protagonist. Often the catalyst remains unchanged, changing those around him. In one profound sense the opposite happens here.
It’s impossible not to be exalted by the language Synge found in the Arran Islands and here in Mayo, the headlong lyricism of Christy as he soars into his force, as it’s called in Ireland. But Synge’s language is earthy, wondrous, and musically pitched to an astonishing degree. Less absolutely so if one reflects he originally trained to become a violinist and musician in Leipzig. The rapt enchantment of Christy and Pegeen is only the highpoint of one kind of speech pattern Synge deploys The other’s deeply comic, utilising the rhythms of Irish as deeply self-reflexive, ironic, self-mocking: ‘it’s destroyed I am surely’ even the very last line spoken by Pegeen and incorporating the soubriquet of Christy and play’s title.
Balfe’s wildness but also his creeping strength from word-spinner to myth-spanner is consummately calibrated; he’s commanding where he finally needs to be. Like Adams who also takes a part, Taylor and Mike Skinner as Michael Flaherty, he’s already versed in Irish from Translations, and here the stakes are higher still: Synge requires an even more recognizable Mayo accent and though the lines lend themselves to perfect emulation, they can fall flat; not here. Atkinson’s new to this and pitches both accent and Pegeen’s cautious, mocking probing feeling as far as anyone can. Atkinson makes a fine fist at a certain vehemence some might wish for in this part, and her restraint accords well with a woman torn between desire and communal responsibility as she reflects on it.
There’s a riveting performance from Hartnett as Old Mahon, who might have the advantage of being Irish but is authoritative here, and very funny, baffling his way to vehemence and ultimately back to incredulity. Dee Forest, expert in voice production also brings a steely grace to Widow Quin, someone who surrenders to the inevitable, losing out to a young woman; yet who brokers deals, makes the best for all parties and knows more than anyone when to bow to the twists of plots gone awry.
Taylor’s comically timorous Keogh, Adams as a neatly observed Jimmy Farrell out of his depth and Jason Lever debuting as a convincing chorus Philly Cullen furnish fine support to Skinner’s Flaherty, whose sovereign sense of the wrong moves to make as Pegeen’s father swell the comedy to a touch of bathos through farce. Three newcomers Abigail Hyde, Lana Jordan and Sorcha Harris all parade as young women with an exuberance that belies any unfamiliarity with Synge. There was scarcely a slipped accent. The excellent programme also provides an extensive glossary but you’ll understand nearly all of it perfectly in its context.
It was the third and last act however mingling high farce and near-tragedy as it does, that pitches this part of the performance to outstanding by any standard. The most legendary production of the last decade or so, by Druid Theatre Galway in 2009, came to mind to at least two of the audience, both Dublin dwellers, who separately concluded this part of the night is on a par with it. There can be no higher praise.