Stage Door Review 2023

The Playboy of the Western World

Tuesday, August 8, 2023


by John Millington Synge, directed by Jackie Maxwell

Shaw Festival, Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

July 7-October 7, 2023

Jimmy: “Bravery’s a treasure in a lonesome place”

Widely considered the epitome of Irish drama The Playboy of the Western World (1907) by John Millington Synge (1871-1909) received its first production at the Shaw Festival in 1996. It was so popular it was revived the very next season. This year is the first season since 1997 that the Shaw has presented the play and it does so in a production directed by Jackie Maxwell, who directed the play in 1996 and 1997.

Synge labelled his play a “comedy” and that is how Maxwell approached it in the 1990s. Playboy, however, like any true masterpiece is a very rich text and allows for different interpretations. This time around Maxwell seems especially aware that Synge was a contemporary of one of her favourite playwrights, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). Chekhov labelled his most famous four plays “comedies” even though most people would view them as “dramas” or even “tragedies”. Consequently, Maxwell’s present Playboy is very dark, easily the darkest of the half dozen or so Playboys I’ve seen.

In this Playboy Maxwell emphasizes is the same feelings of exile and loneliness that are so prominent in Chekhov. We are still in a village on the wild coast of County Mayo in the northwest corner of Ireland. The county itself is one of the least populated in the country, the largest town, as of 2022, having a population of only 13,054. Unlike Chekhov, however, the notion of leaving the village for a better or more exciting life elsewhere does not even occur to the inhabitants.

That’s why when a young man, Christie Mahon, enters a small pub run by Pegeen Mike, and says that he has killed his father, he instantly becomes a celebrity. Christie has done something that most of the villagers consider unthinkable. Symbolically, by killing his father Christie has killed the past and has killed the centuries of tradition that have held people down and kept people from thinking their own thoughts. One need only look at Christie’s exact opposite, Shawn Keough, who never considers anything without worrying what the Church of Rome will think of it.

The previous productions of Playboy I’ve seen all played up the black humour of villagers so amazed that someone killed his father that rather than ostracizing Christie, they praise his bravery and bring him presents. Michael James, who owns the pub where Christie seeks shelter gives him a drink and offers him a job. Pegeen Mike, Michael’s daughter who runs the run, immediately takes a shine to him because he is so unlike all the other men in the village. He is particularly unlike the cowardly Shawn Keough, her cousin, who is seeking an injunction from Rome to allow him and Pegeen to marry, unenthusiastic as she is about the idea.

Pegeen’s main rival is the 30-year-old Widow Quin, who, like Pegeen is unimpressed with the pool of possible spouses in the village and sees Christie as the best catch she can get. All of the characters are forced to revise their view of Christie when it turns out that Old Mahon is not dead.

The play overflows with possibilities for comedy first with the village’s reaction to Christie and then with its reaction to his father. Yet, that is not the approach that Maxwell has taken. Christie’s supposed murderous act is something that breaks the monotony of the village’s everyday life. They finally have something out of the ordinary to celebrate. While it is easy to view this as comic it also easy to view the village’s actions as pathetic. How dull is life in County Mayo if murder is considered brave rather than despicable?

Maxwell has so directed the play that all the lines and events that ordinarily would receive roars of laughter evoke only bemused smiles or even pity for villagers who welcome any distraction from drudgery and boredom. Michael James and his cronies are mostly interested in attending the Kate Cassidy’s wake as a means of getting drunk without having to pay for the liquor and are keen to arrive early while the good stuff is being served.

When Douglas Beattie directed the play for Touchmark Theatre in 2001, he focussed on the relationship between Christie and his father. Maxwell in her new view of the play focusses on the relationship between Christie and Pegeen. The Widow Quin merely wants Christie to do a husband’s chores and duties. Maxwell makes it very clear that, for Pegeen, Christie is the one chance Pegeen has to live a life free of stifling convention, a life touched with the poetry that comes so easily to Christie. Viewed this way, anything that compromises new hopes for a new life that Pegeen has allowed herself to have will devastate her and prevent her from ever daring to hope again.

In Marla McLean, Maxwell has the perfect embodiment of her new vision of the play. McLean reveals Pegeen as an extraordinarily complex character. McLean has Pegeen present a tough, no-nonsense exterior to all the denizens of the shebeen shifting to outright dislike of a person like the Widow Quin. At the same time McLean simply through her body language shows that Pegeen undertakes her duties as a barmaid without the least pleasure, crushed by the boredom and routine. McLean shows that the appearance of Christie lights up a part of Pegeen that Pegeen herself had almost thought was dead. The supposed adventurousness of Christie’s life and poetic manner of expression awakens a longing for a freer life that she had long suppressed.

As for Qasim Khan, Christie Mahon is the richest role he has ever had and it is a pleasure to see him play such a multifaceted character. We first see Christie as a shy, weak and fearful, grateful for any kindness shown him. Soon enough, though, when we see Christie admire himself in the mirror and smile at being sought after by so many women, Khan suggests that our first impression of Christie may have been the result of his physical state and not representative of his true personality. Khan has a wonderfully natural way of speaking the poetic prose Synge has given him and it is easy to see how someone starved for a poetic view of life like Pegeen could be so easily attracted to him. Even though we know that Christie is given to embellishing the truth, Khan somehow makes us believe that when Christie says he loves Pegeen he really is sincere. This fact only makes Pegeen’s later anger that drives him away more tragic.

The other characters are all played with great attention to detail. It would be easy to play the Widow Quin as a caricature of a man-hungry female, but that is not at all what Fiona Byrne does with the role. Byrne gives us the portrait of a woman who has become so lonely that she has become desperate and takes no pains to hide the fact. More than once The Widow Quin thinks she may have won Christie over to her side only to have Christie affirm that he is really in love with Pegeen. Byrne makes these moments exquisite. She shows us how Christie’s words strike her almost like a physical blow and simultaneously how the Widow tries to conceal her pain and accommodate herself to an unkind reality.

Andrew Lawrie’s portrayal of Shawn Keough is the one bit of unadulterated comedy in the play. Lawrie plays Keough as such a pathetic milquetoast it’s hard to see how anyone could believe Pegeen would marry him. Shawn’s fear at the least hint of danger and his dependence on the church for all moral support makes him a picture of all that is wrong with Ireland.

As Old Mahon, Christie’s father, Ric Reid thanks to fine acting, makeup and costuming looks like a total wreck of a man. Reid has Mahon denounce Christie so vehemently that, even though we feel no sympathy for him, we do wonder whether there is some truth in what he says.

Without changing a word of the text, Maxwell has shifted the time forward from Synge’s 1907 to the 1960s. Needless to say, this makes it feel even more like time has passed by the wretched village in Country Mayo where the characters live. Maxwell demonstrates this when she has Pegeen take out a transistor radio to play a pop song. Soon the reception fails and the news comes on until Pegeen gives the radio a smack, but the channel drifts back until Pegeen gives up.

The main peculiarity of Maxwell’s staging is her unclear definition of what the playing area represents. For the majority of the action the playing area in the Studio Theatre is exactly identical to the interior of the pub where Pegeen works. Maxwell even has designer Judith Bowden install a screen door in front of Section Four of the seating. This means that anyone sitting in Section Four is forced to view the show through or around the door. Why there should be a physical door there when the rest of the pub is wall-less (this is theatre in the round) is an annoying mystery.

Even odder, at various points Maxwell has the cast walk through the walls to enter of exit even though they previously have been so careful to pretend the walls exist. When Christie runs in the races on the beach, Maxwell has the cast gathered in the follow his progress looking through the walls as if the beach entirely encircled the pub. Maxwell usually has a reason for every directorial decision but there seems no rationale behind the pub walls’ haphazard penetrability.

These lapses aside, Maxwell’s latest vision of this classic of Irish drama is well worth seeing, especially for those who have seen other, more conventional versions. Maxwell gives us not the comedy of Christie Mahon but the tragedy of Pegeen Mike. It is fascinating to see how the one play contains both and to view the action from Pegeen’s point of view for a change. Maxwell’s direction demonstrates how rich a play Playboy is.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Marla McLean as Pegeen Mike and Qasim Khan as Christie Mahon; Qasim Khan as Christie Mahon, Jonathan Tan as Philly O’Cullen, Andrew Lawrie as Shawn Keogh, Sanjay Talwar as Michael Flaherty and Shane Carty as Jimmy Farrell; Fiona Byrne as Widow Quin, Qasim Khan as Christie Mahon and Ric Reid as Old Mahon. © 2023 Emily Cooper.

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