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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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Gavin Quinn's Mandarin Playboy

First off, the question that must, of course, be uppermost in the minds of readers here: Tell me now and tell me true: what is the Mandarin for “loy”?

Why Tie Qiao, of course.

It took nearly four years for Pan Pan’s latest production to see the light of day. But then, heading to China to produce a Mandarin version of The Playboy of the Western World, always sounded like a courageous idea. By the time the company had been through no less than seven different Chinese partners, commissioned a new translation of the play and found somewhere to perform in Beijing, the years had just flown by.

“We always thought it would be a bit of an adventure,” says the show’s director, Gavin Quinn. “So we decided to just stick with it and not worry too much about the timescale.”

In China, the adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is enshrined in the idea of Guan Xi, according to Quinn. “It means contacts. And without contact there is no way to do anything there.”

But even with Guan Xi, way to first night paved with many traps. “One of our partners were originally very happy with us when they thought we were a kind of Riverdance outfit. Someone who was going to make them millions with some sort of global touring product,” says Quinn. “But when they realised we were doing things on a very small scale, they lost interest. They even told off the person who had put us into contact with them.”

Working on a small scale, had some advantages in China however. The complex business of securing the correct licences, permits and permissions, the company discovered, would be much harder if they were not an experimental theatre company. Had Pan Pan’s Playboy played to more than 1000 people, it would have been considered a “mass media” event and received intense official scrutiny.

Eventually, however, a partner was found and the company set about the old business of finding a venue, casting and even creating that new translation of Synge’s story of patricide in the West of Ireland. Synge has never been big in China, it seems, and the only existing translation was from the 1930s, and written in a classical Chinese that even the younger Chinese actors could hardly read. The answer was to make a new one, one which, according to Quinn, was steeped in the street language of cotemporary Beijing.

The action of the new version happens on the outskirts of the capital, where the old China of the country meets the new China of the cities, and where a rather unusual type of business operates: “It’s set in a whore-dressers, which is a kind of hairdressers that is also a brothel…it is usually identifiable by pictures of feet outside. And, lots of village girls in miniskirts hanging around, not cutting hair.”

As a company that works exclusively in experimental styles – for example, producing a show in which 100 actors were stationed in 100 little rooms and each visited, for a chat, by one member of the audience – Pan Pan found the rather, er, traditional flavour of actor training in China, something of a hurdle.

“They don’t really have freelance actors. Most actors would be attached to a company, or else on contracts to make TV shows. They are taught a kind of old fashioned Stanislavski style of acting, they learn to sing and dance, and it can take seven years or more to finish the course.”

“We had to convince the actors that we wanted was to see something of themselves in the performances. The older actors could adapt to that more easily, but the younger actors thought we wanted the very standard type of very earnest American TV acting. They found it all much more difficult.”

After performing the show in Chinas earlier this year, the challenge now is to install the Mandarin-speaking version of Synge’s classic in Ireland. The job has involved re-translating the show back into English for the subtitles often using the playwright’s original language, but also providing a Chinese glossary for the Dublin audience.

“I just realised when I wrote an explanation of one term – Lei Feng – it took me a whole paragraph to explain….”

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Wednesday, February 24, 1999

REVIEW:Playboy (Project, Dublin)

I made that bit up, admits Christine Molloy, one half of the performance duo Desperate Optimists, about her assertion that, just before he met that fatal ice-pick, Leon Trotsky had written the words "there must be another way".

It is a clear warning for the audience at Play-Boy, the company's tendentious evening of theatrical bricolage at the Project at the Mint, not to be too credulous. When it comes to history, you have to suspect your sources. But although Molloy and her partner, Joe Lawlor, are keen to offer such
warnings, the pair still retain high expectations of their audience.

Play-Boy brings together chunks of other people's texts, videotaped interviews, a little mariachi song and dance, some gunfire and a whole lot of fake blood in an effort to connect some ostensibly disparate facts and events of 20th century history.

But if the show involves outlining intriguing and perplexing coincidences, Desperate Optimists are not joining up the dots for anyone. There may be a few hints about the links between the testimony of the film director Elia Kazan at the McCarthy hearings and the riots that accompanied the original Abbey production of John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, but the show still leaves plenty of room for an audience's mental participation.

Some things do become clear as the music plays and gunshots ring out. Violence is one of the key elements that unite the company's chosen texts, whether it be in Molloy's account of the murder of Trotsky, the video witnesses' discussions or the frequent ear-rattling reports of blanks fired on stage. A link also appears to be made between violence, colonialism and isolation. But somehow it is only when the urge to join all the dots begins to wane that the facts seem to speak freely. This is not an approach that a company can take on lightly, all the less so if the intention is to create something more than a multimedia seminar in cultural studies.

But the company's challenge is to make their discussions hold up in front of an audience with relatively straightforward expectations; that is to say, they have to make an evening of talking about theatre into an evening of theatre.

In Play-Boy the company succeed in creating a bristlingly engaging evening of performance. The show does not ignore the straightforward pleasures of storytelling and pretending, but neither does it allow for any lapses of concentration, nor promise easy rewards. A better definition of vital theatre would be hard to find.

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