Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The Playboy of the Western World and The Apple Cart: Flying High at the Shaw

Marla McLean and Qasim Khan in The Playboy of the Western World. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

In the preface to his 1907 masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World, the Irish playwright John Millington Synge writes, “On the stage one must have reality and one must have joy . . . In a good play every speech should be as fully flavoured as a nut or apple . . .” This dictum explains the play’s unusual style and texture, realism folded in with folk-fable imagination and humor and language so musical that it sings in your ears even when you’re just reading the text. Synge claims that he owes both the wildness of the narrative and the richness of the vernacular to his close attention to the way rural working-class Irish people speak (or did around the turn of the twentieth century).

In the play, an unkempt, distraught young man called Christy Mahon wanders onto a hillside above a coastal village in County Mayo, where Michael James Flaherty, the owner of a shebeen (pub), and his daughter Pegeen Mike, who tends bar, take him in, slake his thirst and offer him shelter and a job. Christy claims that he ran away from his home after killing his bullying father with a blow from a loy (spade), and in the minds of the locals this deed makes him an adventurer of rare courage. “A daring fellow is the pearl of the world,” declares Michael James. The village treats him like a hero. Young women show up at the shebeen with gifts of food; Pegeen Mike, who is being courted by a timid young fellow named Shawn Keough, is knocked out by him; and the Widow Quin, who allegedly killed her own husband, tries to win him away from her. When he participates in a day of sporting events the whole village cheers him on, and his victories add another exploit to his reputation. Then, suddenly, his father, his pate scarred but still very much alive, appears in search of the son who assaulted him. Christy fells him a second time, but the violence isn’t glorious when it unfolds right before the villagers’ eyes; it’s ugly, repulsive. “There’s a great gap between a gallous [splendid] story and a dirty deed,” Pegeen Mike insists. At the end Christy is reconciled with his father, who has survived this second blow too, and they go home together, leaving her to lament, in the play’s famous curtain line, “Oh my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World.”

Playboy may be the earliest dramatic work to explore the way we fall into the patterns of myth-making, and the limitations of those myths. Everybody in this tiny village in County Mayo succumbs to the shining idea of Christy Mahon as a fairy-tale prince, even Pegeen Mike, who seems, more than anyone else we meet, to have her feet on the ground, and who really falls in love with him and he with her. And of course Christy succumbs to the image too, though Synge, with his ears always alert to a good joke, gives him a delighted moment at the end of act one when, left alone to contemplate his unexpected treatment, he asks himself, “[W]asn’t I a foolish fellow not to kill my father in the days gone by[?]” I think he wins the local games because their attitude turns him into the hero they’ve decided he is. And then he’s shocked when his father’s inconvenient reappearance, obviously alive, causes them to turn against him because he no longer fits the giant shoes they’ve fitted him for. Pegeen Mike’s anger at him is greater: she takes his lie (though it’s not a deliberate one) as a personal betrayal. And then, after the final takedown – when his second attempt to level his father is horrifying rather than heroic – she realizes that refusing to see him as merely human has blinded her to the authenticity of her own human feelings for him. That’s how I read her mysterious final line, though there are other readings. Playboy is finally her coming-of-age story.

You don’t get much chance to see this play, which is one of the wonders of modernist dramatic literature. (As I recall, the 1962 film version, which is available on Blu-ray, is stagey but preserves the celebrated stage performance of the great Irish actress Siobhan McKenna.) So Jackie Maxwell’s first-class production at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake this season, which she’s set in the 1950s, a time of economic hardship for Ireland, is to be treasured. It’s deftly staged on a spare, handsome set designed by Judith Bowden, who also took charge of the costumes. Maxwell and her cast handle the tonal shifts, which are both the glory and the challenge of this play, with a combination of vigor and delicacy. The only moment that doesn’t work is the offstage one where the villagers vocalize their disgust with Christy’s attack on his father: it’s oddly underplayed.

The cast is almost uniformly fine; only Andrew Lawrie, as Sean Keough, is disappointing – he makes obvious choices and plays for laughs, which is precisely what you can’t do with a work this complex and slippery. In the two leading roles, Marla McLean and Qasim Khan locate all the emotional details, especially the comic and touching parts of their tumbling into love, as well as the layers of their youthful folly. It would be easy for a production to miss the significance of Pegeen Mike and Christy’s tender age; this one is careful not to. Fiona Byrne gets Widow Quin’s sensuality and the maternal feelings that are mixed up with her sexual attraction to him, but she also gets her loneliness and longing. There are surprising elements of Chekhov and even Tennessee Williams in her portrayal. Ric Reid makes a spectacular second-act entrance as Old Mahon, playing him as the embodiment of patriarchal machismo, disdaining his son as a coward and a clown. When he staggers back into the shebeen at the end, he’s like a bleeding ghost. The standouts in supporting roles are Sanjay Talwar as Michael James and, as a pair of barflies, Jonathan Tan and Shane Carty, who has a marvelous, broad Irish countenance.

This is McLean’s seventeenth season at the Shaw; Reid and Byrne have each chalked up two decades. All of their skill and experience is showcased in these performances. On the other hand, this is Khan’s debut season (after five years at Stratford, where I enjoyed him last year in a production of Moliѐre’s The Miser) yet he holds his own. He is an actor of tremendous poetic sensibility and feeling, and I hope to see more of him.

Graeme Somerville in The Apple Cart. (Photo: David Cooper)

I watched Playboy at the Studio Theatre on a Saturday evening after sitting through George Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart in the same space at the matinee. I liked almost everything I saw at the festival this summer, but these two shows are the highlights. The Apple Cart is one of the late Shaw plays – he wrote it in 1928 and it premiered the following year. It’s a satirical take on English democracy, in which King Magnus (Tom Rooney, who plays him as an elegant, sage intellectual) jockeys for power with the prime minister, Joe Proteus (Graeme Somerville, practically camouflaged in spectacles red beard, mustache and sideburns but in admirable form), and his cabinet. They want to eliminate his veto; at the end he offers another “solution” that turns out to be an ingenious move to block their ability to secure the power they’re after. But in his usual way, the playwright pulls an even earlier reversal that undermines what seems to be his premise. The cabinet has no significant power; a multinational corporation, Breakages Limited, has it all. It even employs one or two the ministers.

A serious comedy about the future of the British monarchy is a clever choice for the first summer following the crowning of King Charles III, but in the world of the play nothing else is stable either (except, perhaps, for the iron fist of Breakages Limited), and our shifting, exasperating international political climate is ideal for a revival of perhaps the least performed of Shaw’s best plays. The original script feels like it takes place in the era in which he wrote it but contains a handful of mysterious futuristic references. The director, Eda Holmes, has retained the official time stamp, “The Future,” but she seems to have set it in the late sixties, eliminating the whimsicality of those allusions. Like Jackie Maxwell with Playboy, she takes advantage of both the intimacy and the flexibility of the Studio space, which she employs gracefully and inventively, especially in the introduction to each of the two acts. Judith Bowden designed excellent sets and costumes for this show as well. (The clothes are subtly witty.) Here the tonal shift occurs between the acts: the first is more serious (and more downbeat than it reads), the second funnier.

The Apple Cart also shows off the Shaw at its smartest and most uncompromising; the play hasn’t been dumbed down or shortened to appeal to a contemporary audience, and the one with which I viewed it was obviously engaged straight through and responded with an enthusiasm that reflected, I thought, an appreciation for being treated like intelligent adults. (When the stranger in the next seat turned to me spontaneously at intermission and exclaimed, “This is terrific!,” I couldn’t help answering, “And you’re not likely to find anything like it elsewhere.”) The cast includes some of my favorite Shaw actors: Somerville, Sharry Flett (in her best role in years, as Lysistrata, the Powermistress General), Neil Barclay, Martin Happer. Happer has one of the juiciest parts, the recently appointed Minister of Trade Unions, Billy Boanerges; Shaw always has a particularly good time at the expense of his leftist working-class characters, though he always referred to himself as a revolutionist. In a private audience with Magnus early in the play, before the rest of the cabinet enters, Boanerges proclaims, “I am going to say things that never have been said to a king before,” but the king is beyond surprise; he’s heard it all before, and besides, as he reminds Billy, “Ministers come and ministers go, but I go on forever.” (I couldn’t help thinking of Helen Mirren as Elizabeth in The Queen, quietly putting the newly voted-in Tony Blair, played by Michael Sheen, that Winston Churchill was her first Prime Minister.) When Alice, the Princess of Wales (Rais Clarke-Mendes), strolls in to say hello, she critiques Billy’s gray and red working-class duds and remarks that anyone can see he’s a natural aristocrat. Billy’s flummoxed – and susceptible to flattery. She points out that she couldn’t possibly walk out with him if he didn’t dress formally; when we see him at the top of act two, he’s changed his clothes, and she’s holding comfortably onto his arm.

Rebecca Northan, in her first Shaw season, is charming as Amanda, the Postmistress General, who loves to laugh; she and Lysistrata, the two women in the cabinet, are opposite numbers. André Morin does well with two roles, the secretary Sempronius and the American ambassador, Vanhattan, who pops in shortly after intermission to announce that the United States has decided to rejoin the British Empire (which really means to annex it). My only quibble with the casting is that Sochi Fried doesn’t have the charismatic command to play Orinthia, the king’s mistress, so their scene together, which Shaw calls an interlude before the second act, lacks the high-comic effervescence it demands.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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