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Playboys, Demons, and the Last Kick of a Tiger: Irish Theater in 2007

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 12, Number 3, Fómhar/Autumn 2008
pp. 134-143 | 10.1353/nhr.0.0029

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A man hangs by his entrails from a construction crane high above the Dublin skyline; a woman crawling toward her death asks that what ever is left of the coffin of her stillborn child be placed on top of hers, so that the baby will sink back into her bones; in West Dublin, in a contemporary working of Synge's Playboy, girls film a pub brawl on their mobile phones. These are some of the novel, memorable images from the 2007 crop of Irish drama.

Urban imagery was pervasive. More than a full century after Joyce began to imagine the wanderings of his characters around the city immortalized in Ulysses, Irish drama spanned contemporary Dublin: Ballymun towers, Parnell Street bars, devils in Baldoyle, playboys in West Dublin, flying demons in Dollymount, and a dramatization of Molly Bloom's soliloquy from her Eccles Street bed. Dublin provided the discordant, fragmented, and often violent landscape where theatrical meaning was forged in the Ireland of 2007. (The Dublin obsession extended beyond theater as well; last year, Anne Enright won the Man Booker prize for her novel The Gathering, a portrayal of a gritty, funny, and tragic Dublin family.) And Ireland's distinctive association with theater controversy was recalled in the centenary of the Abbey riots at the performance of Synge's Playboy of the Western World, and the fifty-year anniversary of the arrest of the Pike Theatre's Alan Simpson at the inaugural Dublin Theatre Festival in 1957 for alleged indecency in the performance of Tennessee Williams's Rose Tattoo.

The dominant impression of the year, though, is that it marked a point of change for Irish theater, mirroring the waning of the Celtic Tiger; in 2007, Irish economic and growth indicators were already showing signs of the recession that emerged clearly in 2008. These changes made themselves evident in the way Irish theater grappled with issues of internationalization, and commercialization models, with the relationship between popular and artistic success, and with weaknesses in the national theatrical infrastructure.

Fittingly, the Abbey staged a performance of a new version of The Playboy in the centenary year of its inaugural production. The centenary was also marked by a Druid Synge production of the Synge classic, and in distant parts, at the 2007 Tokyo International Festival. These two events conveyed the enduring impact of both The Playboy and of Synge himself: the Abbey production revealing how a contemporary take on the century-old text continues to have powerful appeal, and the Druid performance in Tokyo—in the year that also marked the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Japan—indicated how fully Synge's reputation has been globalized in the century since his death.

In transposing The Playboy from its West of Ireland origins into a contemporary, multicultural Dublin setting, the Abbey production not only marked Ireland's transition froma peasant to a largely urbanized society in the century since Synge wrote the play, but also the dramatic societal changes of the Celtic Tiger decade. The Abbey adaptation drew on a the partnership between Nigerian-born musician Bisi Adigun and the novelist Roddy Doyle; the latter excels in writing pacy, witty, wise-cracking prose. The updating of the Synge classic moved the setting from a remote shebeen to a crime-ridden housing estate in a West Dublin suburb, where Pegeen runs the bar for her small-time criminal father. Christy Mahon becomes Christopher Malomo, with a story of having murdered his father and fleeing his native Nigeria. Jimmy Fay's direction fully exploited the comic potential of the contemporary setting, and Eileen Walsh's portrayal of Pegeen was widely acclaimed. The production was also praised for its clever writing, wicked entertainment, and its take on contemporary Ireland, particularly in its commentary on the cult of celebrity. However, Susan Conley's review for Irish Theatre Magazine indicated reservations also voiced by others; Conley found that the revised text had a superficial air, and failed to plumb the depths of Synge's dark drama; while clever, she charged that it lacked profundity and shirked the opportunity to dig deeper into hidden recesses of contemporary Ireland. Some thought it ironic that a play that had enraged...



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