It was all down to the word "shift". When JM Synge's tragi-comedy The Playboy of the Western World was first seen at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1907, the audience became "a veritable mob of howling devils" at this daring mention of a woman's undergarment. Soon the uproar had become a riot, and by the end of the first week of the run there were some 500 police keeping order in and around the theatre.
It is difficult, even in Greg Hersov's vividly realistic production for Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, to understand from today's perspective of Shopping and F***ing and Blasted how Irish morality could have been quite so outraged. The tale of an Irish village idolising a young man, Christy Mahon, who has killed his own father with a single blow struck by a potato spade was, according to the United Irishman, "a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language". This "picturesque, poetical and fantastical" play - as Synge's supporter WB Yeats put it - triggered a blast of criticism for its "defamation against Ireland, its obscenity, its inauthenticity and its inappropriateness to the Dublin stage", and no doubt for flying in the face of fashionable political ideas by portraying Irish peasants in a frank and earthy manner.
Synge, after all, had lived among the people of the Aran Islands and West Kerry, and admitted to having learnt a great deal from listening, with his ear to a chink in the floorboards, to the chatter in a farmhouse kitchen. And it is exactly the roaring, affectionate energy that whirls through these alternately elemental and eloquent lines that Hersov captures so evocatively.
The mushrooming of Mahon's personality through his belief in his own falsehoods, and through the glowing admiration of women drawn unquestioningly to his Don Juan-like character, is treated with an honest integrity, and with the virile directness of a folk ballad. Not surprisingly, the excellent and predominantly Irish cast that Hersov has assembled is adept at capturing the broad dialectal style of Synge's poetic prose - a language as "richly flavoured as a nut or an apple" - and at spelling out the internal truths and implications of the "gallous story" spun by Mahon. The large Irish contingent in the audience on the night that I was there clearly picked up more of the complex patterns of words and whimsical humour than I could manage, though one's ears do grow accustomed to the rich rhythms and extravagant imagery given full value by the entire cast.
In Conor Murphy's scruffy shebeen, you can sense the stale stink of poteen quite distinctly from the smoke swirling around the real peat fire. His set is beautifully lit by Bruno Poet, moonlight and sunshine simply illuminating the hovel isolated in the insular Western World, somewhere west of Shannon and proverbial for its wildness and poverty.
Pegeen Mike, unsentimentally portrayed by Mairead McKinley, is a true child of this landscape, and surely too feisty to be married to her feckless and cowardly second cousin, Shawn Keogh (John Paul Connolly). Alan Devlin turns in a warm performance as Pegeen's father, wandering from wake to wake and viewing much of life through an alcoholic haze, and Eileen Pollock makes a splendidly brazen and manipulative Widow Quin.
As the alluring stranger, the playboy himself, Michael Colgan makes a convincing transition from leprechaun-like lad to puffed-up hero winning hearts and races on the beach, to a young man finally squaring up to his burly, bullish father (a superbly comical Niall O'Brien). But it is Father Reilly, the unseen guardian of peasant morality, who casts the longest shadow over the proceedings, at the dark end of which we need to feel the full sense of Pegeen's grief, a climactic moment ruined if, as on this occasion, just one person laughs.
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