Simon Ward reviews The Passion of the Playboy Riots at the Hen & Chickens
Passion; playboy; riots. Probably best to put all these out of your mind. This is a cerebral meditation on many themes, perhaps more than can be accommodated in its scant 50 minute duration.
A three-hander set backstage at three Dublin theatrical venues, it recounts a series of (presumably imaginary) meetings between the poet WB Yeats, his friend and collaborator Lady Augusta Gregory, and the soon-to-be Irish Republican hero Patrick Pearse.
The play charts the progress of the characters from the first tentative beginnings of Yeats’s dream to create an authentically Irish culture to advance the political cause of the Home Rule movement, through the eponymous riotous reaction to Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, until the final scene where O’Casey’s Plough And The Stars similarly leads the audience to ‘disgrace themselves once again’.
The play asks the meta-theatrical question of what can be expected of a theatre audience. At first, simply getting an audience is enough, but before long they are expected to be galvanised into action in a proto-Brechtian way on behalf of the Gaelic ideal. And of course they singularly fail to live up to this requirement. They are either bored if the acting or the play isn’t good enough, or outraged if they think that they or their heroes are being treated with insufficient respect. Perhaps the project of raising a national consciousness while at the same time respecting artistic integrity is inevitably doomed.
The most interesting drama in the play revolves around the character of Patrick Pearse. His progression from sycophantic fanboy when we first meet him as he comes backstage to a controlling zealot pre-figures his self-immolation during the Easter Rising of 1916. Acting honours go to Justin McKenna who gets to play Pearse and his virtual ghost after his execution.
One of the themes is Yeats’s apparent lack of awareness or indifference to the power of his words and ideas. The play climaxes with Lady Gregory delivering the Kathleen Ní Houlihan speech we had previously heard being mangled by an offstage Maud Gonne. This, we understand, sowed the seeds at the turn of the century for the revolution to come. Yeats abhors the result, with the nation and the island divided along religious lines, yet he has been instrumental in bringing it about.
So much for what this play is, or might have been. Unfortunately the staging is amateurish and under-rehearsed. The conceit that we can hear on-stage proceedings when a corner of curtain is pulled back surely died a death with Morecambe and Wise. This is used repeatedly. The actors are not yet secure in their lines. Jokes go for nothing – I longed for a decent delivery of the crack about all the various United groupings having split up. Sound cues are painfully audible coming in and out. One of the back projections mentions the ‘rebers’ [sic] of 1916. The later Yeats is shown wearing a made-up bow tie, which no gentleman of the time would have done. We are above a pub, but the best shows transcend such limitations.
Overall, it is an intriguing premise but sadly the realisation fails.
28th June 2017
The Passion of the Playboy Riots plays at the Hen & Chickens Theatre until July 8th