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Playboy Of The Western World, Theatre Royal, Brighton, until May 16
Spitting, brawling, stomping and snarling, drunk from wakes and red from shouting, JM Synge’s bleak vision of rural Irish life is vivid as a bruise in Druid Theatre’s visceral production of this tragicomic masterpiece.
First staged in 1907, when indignant riots broke out in the theatre, Playboy has lost none of its audacity over the years. Ostensibly it is a story about the making – and breaking – of a hero.
But the protagonist in this case is a man who claims to have killed his father.
Even to modern audiences, the concept remains baldly unsavoury.
Aaron Monaghan packs a huge punch as Christy, the titular Playboy. Elevated first by lies and then by love to heights he never could have imagined, Christy’s giddy disbelief is reflected in the audience’s. Can those women really be fighting for the affections of such a “dark and dorty” loser? And all because he killed his own father!
Monaghan captures with clarity the way the images other people project on to us, particularly when we are in love, can become a kind of truth. The morning after his first meeting with Pegeen (a wonderfully earthy Clare Dunn), Christy wakes as if in a dream and looks in the mirror at a face he’s never seen before. The universal resonance is painfully poignant. When, then, the myth that got him to this place starts to be questioned, we are in no doubt there is much more at stake than mere celebrity. Out of control and increasingly desperate, Christy ends up a pawn in a game he doesn’t understand and the comic turns tragic.
The excellent cast wring the blood from Synge’s rich text, making every line sing. The audience is flung head-first into the sawdust, mud and sheer isolation of the characters’ lives, making the incredible conceit at the heart of the story uncomfortably believable.
It becomes apparent this is a play about the power of stories, both our own and other people’s, the way they can build us up and also destroy us. Synge may have taken the idea to the extreme, but Druid’s production makes us realise the horrifying, wonderful, ordinary truth of it.