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Playboy Of The Western World, Theatre Royal, New Road, Brighton, May 12-16
When JM Synge’s Playboy Of The Western World opened in Dublin in 1907, riots broke out in the theatre.
Mention of a “shift” (or petticoat) in a public place was supposedly such an affront to decency, the resulting noise from the audience forced actors to complete the performance as a dumb show.
That’s the story, anyway. Aaron Monaghan, who plays Christy Mahon, the titular lead in Druid Theatre Company’s acclaimed production, takes a different view. He thinks the play presented a view of rural Ireland theatre-goers were reluctant to recognise.
Arriving in an isolated village pub claiming to have killed his father, Christy represents an unsavoury fascination to the drama-starved locals. Women, including the landlord’s daughter Pegeen, fall in love with him and he becomes something of a folk hero.
“It’s kind of outrageous,” Aaron says. “We keep on laughing in rehearsals, not because the play is really funny but because you wonder how Synge had the cheek to do it.
“I can only imagine, in 1907 when the likes of Yeats put this play on, the theatre-going people of Dublin saw these peasants with dirty clothes taking in a murderer and they didn’t like that mirror being held up to them.”
Druid, one of Ireland’s most respected theatre companies, has a long association with Synge’s work – Garry Hynes, one of the three founders, once jokingly described him as their “house playwright”. Playboy was the first piece they staged as a company and their 1982 production, which presented the play’s sexuality and violence with unflinching realism, is widely considered definitive.
“The characters had a savageness – they were dug out of the earth.
I think that was Synge’s original intention and that was why people rioted originally,” Aaron says. “It had become this play that was poetic, a bit romantic, a bit funny, but I think Garry restored it.” Despite being more than 100 years old, Aaron says the play’s themes translate easily to modern audiences. “It’s the idea of what happens with children. Christy has this father who is at the end of his wits with him. It’s the same with Peg. There’s the theme of the isolation and desolation of the countryside and I think that’s still there today in rural Ireland.
“It’s also a great love story and about how we see things in each other that aren’t necessarily there and vice versa.”
If the company achieves its aim, Aaron hopes audiences will feel they are on a rollercoaster “where they don’t have a moment to breathe or know what’s going to happen next”.
“You have some of the greatest characters that have ever been written in Irish drama with some of the most poetic, outrageous, funny language,” he says.
This time around, perhaps it will be the audience, and not the actors, who are left speechless.
- Starts 7.30pm (2.30pm matinees Thursday and Saturday). Tickets cost £8-£22.50. Call 01273 709709