The Playboy of the Western World is a wonderful play by J.M. Synge that takes place in a bar (a pub, if you prefer) on the western edge of Ireland in County Mayo. It premiered in 1907 and it involves a loser and liar named Christy Mahon telling people that he killed his father and becoming a local hero.
I have much to say about the production but let me begin by praising the language of the play and its delivery by the cast. The musicality of the Irish accent in this isolated pub frequented by simple people is like listening to a violin sonata. I did not understand everything that they were saying (the program provides a glossary of the meaning of a few words but it is not enough) but hearing the lovely intonation of the language kept me rapt.
The plot is simple. Christy Mahon (Qasim Khan) reveals that he murdered his father by using a loy, a long, narrow spade for working in stony areas. Christy looks like a loser and we need not worry for long as to how and why he becomes “the playboy of the western world.” Just look around at what people believe from shady televangelists to corrupt politicians and are prepared to commit crimes in support of some of them. To enhance our perception that this is not a freak event in a rural community in 1907 but something that is happening here and now, director Jackie Maxwell and Costume Designer Judith Bowden, have the characters wear modern clothing. Whatever his clothes, Christy is a wonderful story-teller and speaks in poetic tones regardless of his appearance.
Pegeen Mike (Marla McLean) who operates the pub is no fool yet she becomes attracted to Christy, as does Widow Quinn (Fiona Byrne), an attractive woman who tries to win Christy over. There is also a chorus of young girls namely Sarah Tansey (Alexandra Gratton), Susan Brady (Jane Repeta) and Honor Blake (Kiana Woo) who react to him as if he were rock star.
Pegeen is a smart and assertive woman who is engaged to marry Shawn Keogh (Andrew Lawrie) a religious local farmer and a dishrag of a man and the relationship founders in the presence of Christy.
Michael James (Sanjay Talwar), Pegeen’s father and the owner of the pub, wants her to marry Shawn but his primary interest is drinking. Philly O’Cullen (Jonathan Tan) and Jimmy Farrell (Shane Carty) are his friends and drinking companions.
I will not reveal the rest of the plot. You should see the play and enjoy the humour, the wonderful acting and the musical rendition of the Irish accent. Jeffrey Simlett is the Voice and Dialect Coach and I give him top marks for being able to get Canadian actors to speak so beautifully in an accent that I suppose is foreign to most of them.
The play is performed in the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre and that creates problems of its own. The rectangular playing area has a bar at one end and a door at the other with some furniture in the middle. The door to the storage area of the pub is behind the bar and people enter the bar from the opposite end. This was somehow forgotten and people started coming and going through “the wall” on one side of the stage. Why?
The greatest credit and praise must go to director Jackie Maxwell. She has assembled and coached a superb cast to act like a well-trained team in giving us the feel and of an isolated Irish pub, proving the humour and the marvels of Synge’s masterpiece. It is a major achievement.
The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge continues until October 7, 2023, at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.