Irish classic is given a faithful rendition
Montrealers are in for a treat this month when Concordia's Theatre Department produces The Playboy of the Western World at the D.B. Clarke Theatre. Written by John Millington Synge, the play is a modern classic, and certainly one of the finest comedies ever to come out of Ireland.
Kate Bligh, a first-time guest director at Concordia, fell in love with Playboy's alert speech, lyricism, satire and pathos after seeing a production in her native England five years ago.
"I was blown away, astonished by its language," she said in a phone interview. "I immediately knew that I wanted to direct this play. It was like Mount Everest. I just wanted to get up there!"
To ensure that Playboy retains its native charm, Bligh recruited volunteer voice coaches from Montreal's Irish community to teach her 11 principle actors how to replicate the lilting lyricism of the Irish accent.
Theatre undergraduate and dramaturge Bridget Gillen was in Ireland for three months last fall. She researched where the play is set and observed the local accents, which she recorded for reference.
"It was important since people from western Ireland [Playboy's locale] do not speak the same way as those from Dublin," Gillen said. She has trace of a Irish brogue herself, thanks to hours of rehearsals.
Language is of particular importance in Playboy, since it is the story of the making of a poet. The main character, Christy Mahon, begins as a stuttering farm boy whose personal growth is stunted by a father who beats and berates him. But when Christy is ordered to marry a 45-year-old, 200-pound widow, the same woman who was once his wetnurse, he refuses to accept this fate.
He flees from home, after knocking out his father in self-defence. Taking refuge in a de-populated village, he confesses to patricide, and is made an instant hero for what the townspeople perceive to be an act of bravery.
These people ache for an idol, Bligh said, since their community is barren of anyone with ambition, all those with promise having left to find their fortune elsewhere. Through their admiration, Christy is stimulated to grow as a person and take command of his poetic, physical and sexual powers. It could be argued that without his attempts to kill his father, he could not have become a man.
But when Christy's father hunts him down, and the townspeople discover he never actually killed his parent, he quickly falls from favour. This reversal of fortunes carries many elements of classical Greek comedies and tragedies, Bligh said, and striking references to Oedipus Rex; in Playboy, a young man turns down two opportunities to wed a mother figure and twice tries to kill his father. "It's an incredibly clever play," she said. "Exquisite, really."
The Great Irish Famine also left its mark on Playboy, as well as the collective Irish psyche, Bligh said. She surmised that Christy's father, who reveals he is 60 in the play, would have been born at the height of the famine in 1846.
"It would explain, in part, why the father is so violent with his son," she said. "He has been traumatized by his experience of the famine, and as a consequence feels justified in brualizing his child. Synge's metaphor might be that a promising but opporessed new generation is finally attempting to liberate itself from the shadow of the famine."
As for the riots the play provoked at its Dublin's Abbey Theatre premiere in 1907, Bligh argued that they were not just protests against the play's alleged immorality (for a reference to women's underwear and many blasphemous oaths). At the time, the native Catholic Irish and those of the Protestant ascendancy were struggling over who would define Irish culture.
So when the play exposed the peasant class in all its vulgar glory, it got a little too close for comfort. "Synge said that 93 per cent of the play's lines were direct quotes from real people," Bligh said. "This play is extraordinarily well observed."
Gillen added that during her trip to Ireland, much to her surprise, she found that Playboy still outrages some locals. "I met a guy who was still upset about it," she said. "That amazed me since I never thought it would have the same effect today."
The Playboy of the Western World runs April 17 to 26 at the D.B. Clarke Theatre. Tickets are $2 to $10. For more information, call 848-4742.