After an engrossing week of openings at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (themselves following on the Shaw Festival’s first offerings for its 50th anniversary season—cross references below) it was most informative to visit the Irish Classical Theatre Company and see the final production of its 20th year before the public.
Two decades is a remarkable achievement for any performing arts organization. Judging from director Derek Campbell’s take on The Playboy of the Western World, the future never looked brighter. Here’s to dozens more seasons to come!
Just over a century after the première (which reportedly caused a minor riot in the same vein as The Rite of Spring—will new, courageous work ever evoke such strong passions again?), John Millington Synge’s fanciful story of justifiable (in the mind of the perpetrator) patricide run amuck is just the everyman tonic to the likes of Richard III, My Fair Lady or Jesus Christ Superstar.
Like so many past productions in the Andrews Theatre, the star is once again the ensemble. The 12 actors interact seamlessly, creating a feeling of having dropped in on a gang of old friends who aren’t shy about telling tall tales, being generous with the truth or carrying on at all hours.
An apparent vagrant drags himself into a modest rural pub and promptly orders “a glass of porter, woman of the house.” Rather than the suggested “put down a coin,” Christy (Patrick Moltane carries the complex role with just the right mix of unbridled exuberance, growing confidence and quiet terror) places his payment firmly in the palm of his server (effectively putting her all into every line and scene, Cassie Gorniewicz’s performance as Pegeen Mike is a joy at every twist and turn). A brief touch and silent eye-to-eye exchange and there’s no doubt where the love aspect of this narrative is headed. Here is stagecraft of the highest order. Marvellous.
It soon comes to early-morning light that Christy is on the lam after a hilarious group interrogation (Dan Walker playing Pegeen Mike’s father a tad pastel overall; Gerry Maher a hoot as the wiry Philly Cullen—perfectly foiled by Christopher Standart’s ever-ready-for-a-dram Jimmy Farrell) prompts the “destroyed” youth to proudly confess “I killed my poor father.”
Incredibly to some, from that moment forward—especially as the accursed departed’s abuses are catalogued—the unrepentant killer becomes an instant hero. Seldom has premeditated murder been so richly rewarded.
Shawn Keough (Kevin Craig gives a properly restrained performance that nicely balances the simmering heat between Christy and his bevy of admirers) soon offers the sudden Don Juan his hat and finest clothes (sounding one of the few false notes when the anxious suitor’s fit his much slimmer competitor to a tee) and a one-way ticket to anywhere but here ….
With the tenor and tone of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Three Little Maids From School,” a trio of beauties (Genevieve Lerner ably leading the pack along with Jessica Wegrzyn and Natalie Mack)—on a proactive tip from Shawn—lay siege to the public-house until they make the personal acquaintance of the mysterious stranger who—for cover from the peelers’ inquiries—has been hired on the spot as pot boy.
In still another amorous advance (and further promises of untold riches of all stripes) on the delighted, self-made orphan, Christy is soon the apple in Widow Quinn’s roving eye (Josephine Hogan can lust with the best of them but would benefit from a touch more larcenous pitch in her negotiating tactics). Having had an unpunished hand in her own hubby’s demise, the pair are got-away-with-it peas in a pod.
Throwing a reincarnated spanner in the works is the unexpected appearance of Old Mahon. Synge and Campbell are brilliantly served by Vincent O’Neill’s larger-than-death portrayal of the demanding dad. The inevitable face-to-face confrontations of father and son drive the closing scenes forward with a frenzy that would wake the dead.
The Playboy of the Western World is as timeless as meteoric fame, glory and desirability being just as quickly quashed in a lie—even when the truth saves a life, it forever changes others. The power of “savagery and fine words” over common folk with miserable lives continues to play out in real time as blood-lust sport (cross-reference below) or despotic political rule.
That reality comes home with a vengeance thanks to Campbell’s subtle understanding and considerable skills. JWR