Monday, October 08, 2007

REVIEW: The Playboy of The Western World (The Abbey, Dublin)

On the surface, John Millington Synge's 1905 proto-Western has a great deal in common with your average cowboy movie. But when it comes to subtlety and equivocation, The Playboy of The Western World has few gun-slinging competitors.

Synge's stranger, of course, is not even an anti-hero. He is just good, sometimes, at making stuff up. Every power he possesses has been awarded him by the credulous and the desperate townsfolk. This, of course, shows their weakness and not his. But what society really wants to learn about its weaknesses from a visitor? It'll end in tears.

You might imagine, then, that Bisi Adigun and Roddy Doyle's new version, which turns 'the playboy' into Christopher (Giles Terera), a Nigerian asylum seeker, explores the attitudes of attitudes to "the newcomers". In practice, the play hardly seems to be concerned with race at all. This playboy hardly meets any prejudice at all. 'Cause round here, people are judged purely by their character and their actions. Surely, this Dublin is a fine place.

Adigin/Doyle's updating is sometimes very smart, but sometimes very dumb: as is traditional with Doyle's theatre, it doesn't feel obliged to write a great gag when a well-placed expletive will get the laugh. The new text, for example, quite literally replaces the line "I've lost him, the only playboy of the western world" with "Fuck off!"

Jimmy Fay's production has some pace problems, particularly towards the end of the first half, but comes up trumps after the interval, when, in a beautiful piece of slapstick, Joe Hanley's Jimmy 'creates' two pints of Guinness and Red Bull and the show finally discovers its correct comic pitch. Best of all -- as seems to be the rule these days -- is Eileen Walsh as Pegeen, a compass by which everyone can steer when it comes to bouncing agilely between comedy and passion.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Bisi Adigun's (and Roddy Doyle's) Playboy

It started with a joke. Or, maybe it was a joke. Bisi Adigun, who has co-written a brand new version of The Playboy of the Western World with Roddy Doyle for The Abbey, wasn't sure when he first saw Synge's classic play that there was even anything to laugh about.

"I think to understand the comedy of a country, you have to understand the culture of that country. Tragedy might be universal, but comedy isn't. So when I first came Ireland I realised that I would have a lot of work to do before I could get the jokes."

Adigun, who came to Ireland in 1998 from Nigeria, has since made substantial progress in that respect, and is now equipped to deal with the sly asides of Irish life: "At least now, when I see somebody hand someone a brown envelope, I know why that's funny…at least six out of ten times I will get the joke"

There were, all the same, still some obstacles for the writer and director to overcome before he could bust a gut at the antics of Christy Mahon, Peegen Mike and the rest of Synge's sheebeen crew. "When I saw the play first I thought it was very chaotic and very violent and not really very funny at all."

When it came to re-imagining the humour of The Playboy for a twenty-first century Ireland, colleagues advised him there was only one man to see: Roddy Doyle. "Roddy Doyle has a special gift for writing funny lines, so I think we were able to write together something that lived up to the standards of the original."

Together the pair have created an entirely new version of the play, but one which is still quite clearly based on Synge's original -- "as Roddy Doyle says 'you can still see the tail of the shark," says Adigun.

The new version is centred on a Nigeria asylum-seeker (played by Giles Terera) who finds himself in a Northside pub run by Pegeen Mike (played by Eileen Walsh). "When Christy arrives in the Playboy, he has a story to tell. And it seemed to me that is what an asylum seeker always needs wherever they go – a story to tell."

Christy's tale in Synge's original -- that he killed his father with a loy -- has been given a Nigerian twist for this new version.

"We weighed up every word very carefully…I was looking around for the right word to replace "loy" and one day I saw a story in a Nigerian newspaper about a murder where somebody had been killed with a pestle, one that's used for pounding yams. And I thought 'that's it!" It was like God's gift to us…"

[And for all those Loy completest out there (oh, yeah, that's just me) the word for that yam-pounding implement in Adigun’s own language is omo-ori-odo, which he explain literally means "the top of the mortar”]

Another gift to the production, Nollywood star, Olu Jacobs, takes the role of the father Christy claims to have pounded to death. “It is amazing to have him in the show. He is such a massive star in Nigeria I keep explaining to people he is like our Sean Connery."

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