Magazine article The Spectator

The Leprechaun Factor

Magazine article The Spectator

The Leprechaun Factor

Article excerpt

The Playboy of the Western World

Old Vic, until 26 November

Terrible Advice

Menier Chocolate Factory,

until 12 November

Riots at theatres, commonplace before the Great War, have mysteriously gone out of fashion. J.M. Synge's classic, The Playboy of the Western World, was disrupted many times during its opening week in 1907 by Dubliners who objected to its portrayal of the rural poor in the west of Ireland. Strange that, feigning outrage on behalf of an alien caste. It's like insider trading with an ethical twist. You borrow someone else's moral identity and sell it at a value which has been inflated by your act of adoption.

Even today this peculiar mechanism keeps the grievance industry going. The protesters in Dublin, many belonging to Sinn Fein, gave up when they realised that the protests were effectively advertising the show. And the causes that motivated them are extinct today so we can see the play for what it is. A classic. A text that will charm any community, and any age, because it appeals to our inner bumpkin. Even a devoted city-dweller understands the penetrating tedium of the countryside, the isolation it produces, the yearning for excitement. And it's this spiritual deadness that Synge brilliantly evokes and mocks.

The play has the formal structure of a comedy sketch: a crazy opening, three dramatic beats, and an even crazier ending. Christy Mahon, a charismatic drifter, beguiles the womenfolk of a remote Irish village by confessing that he murdered his father. Then his father turns up, wounded but alive, and the villagers' adoration turns to outrage and contempt. That's the first hour.

All the elements in John Crowley's solid production are clean and rather lovely to look at. Scott Pask, the designer, has set the play in the most beautiful Irish hovel you'll ever see. The filth is to die for. Each stone has been lovingly distressed with soot. The furnishings are ready for the auction room. And above the roof float pretty wisps of blue-grey smoke against a nicely judged Celtic sunset. All that's missing are the trills of James Galway's flute. And here they come! Between each act the set spins around to reveal the hovel's rear wall and a band of rustics, in tailored rags, all plucking away on period instruments and producing one of dem loovely auld Oirish tewns.

Which is fine, I suppose. If you can't crank up the leprechaun factor on this play then you never will. …

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