Riots erupted when JB Synge’s Playboy of the Western World had its opening performance back in 1907. Objectors to foul language on stage, and to the taboo subject of patricide being aired in a no-holds-barred presentation lost the run of themselves and tried to suppress the play before anyone would see or hear it.
There were no riots on Friday night when dramatist Robert Power brought his production of the play to Fennelly’s of Callan: Just a riot of gob-smacked joy and standing ovations. Stunned silence followed by sustained applause greeted each of the three riveting acts.
The outdoor setting of Fennelly’s converted farmyard was ideal, with the treetops of the old Norman Moat visible above the props and stage scenery, adding a further if unintended touch to the early 20th century locale
The play revolves around a young man’s bravado claims that he killed his father. For more than a century audiences have puzzled over how this claim makes him a hero to all the eligible young women who vie for his affections. Patrons at Fennelly’s also wondered…even as the play’s slapstick humour had them falling off their seats.
Christy Mahon (played by Robert Power), turns up at a village tavern, distraught and disheveled, and recounts how he killed his father, Old Mahon (Walter Dunphy) in a fit of rage, following years of alleged bullying and humiliation at his hands.
Pegeen Mike (Electra Grant) daughter of the publican James Flaherty (David Shee) is swept off her feet by Christy’s shock-horror tale, pitting the stranger’s uncommon bravery in killing his father against the wimpy Shawn Keogh (Padraic Meade), who wants to marry her. Christy is a wonder to her, a real man who fears nothing and who has proven his manliness by his singular dreadful act.
But while women swoon in Christy’s presence and the retelling of his deed, Shawn Keogh sees him as a major threat to his own martial ambitions. Aware of his limitations, and that he can’t compete with a father-killer, Shawn devises a strategy to get Christy out of his way by egging the Widow Quinn (Ruth Meade) to seduce the stranger, provoking rivalry and comical bitterness among the women who lust after Christy.
In addition to Pegeen and the Widow Quinn, a whole line-up of giggling girls long for his embraces when they hear that he killed his father.
Christy’s hero status with the women, however, begins to unravel when Old Mahon staggers into the tavern, bruised and battered but very much alive, searching for the reprobate son who tried but failed to kill him. The women turn against Christy, and he responds to this threat to his lofty self-image by trying to kill his father again.
The play amuses and challenges in about equal measure, and the entire cast gave a hugely entertaining performance. At Fennelly’s Robert Power was the quintessential “playboy” as portrayed by all the great actors (Irish or otherwise) down the decades who have taken on this demanding role. He was passionate, fearful, and falsely brave in turn, taking us on a rollercoaster of conflicting emotions, and examinations of our own sometimes contradictory social attitudes, as his character followed through on a pathetic fantasy in order to be liked, loved, and feared…
Electra Grant was feisty and domineering as Pegeen, trampling all over Shawn Keogh, who Padraic Heade brought to life in all his over-stated under-confidence.
Ruth Meade was suitably conniving and seductive as the Window Quinn, the ultimate romantic tactician. Walter Dunphy as the cantankerous, bitter, oppressive Old Mahon was surely a perfect fit for the part and you shuddered at the thought of living in the shadow of such a powerful and oppressive father-figure.
Kayleigh Carroll, Kate de Barra, Caroline Cotter, and Eibhlin de Paor brought new depths of skittishness to the audacious Village Girls who fancied Christy. Dennis Barry and Neill Bourke were typical farmers of that Other Ireland, bringing their own offbeat analysis to bear on a fraught situation involving alleged murder, attempted murder, a possible upcoming hanging, and a tangled web of love, jealousy, bravado, low self-esteem, generational tensions, and revenge.
Through studied characterization, the cast delivered their lines in a dazzlingly adopted version of Hiberno-English. They evoked the spirit of an age that seems far removed from our society.
But its themes are as relevant and compelling now as they were when the riots disrupted the 1907 performance.
The music and inspired set designing contributed to the play’s success, and patrons are already looking forwarded to the next theatrical outing at Fennelly’s.