There’s much to like about the The Passion of the Playboy Riots, written and directed by Neil Weatherall, but in the end its virtues aren’t enough to rescue it from the sketchiness of the writing and the flimsiness of the production values.
A lot of Irish writers have been nationalists, and quite a lot of Irish nationalists have been writers too – or at least thought they were. The story of the fight for Home Rule, and the eventual foundation of the Irish Free State in 1921 alongside the division of the country is interwoven with poetry, plays and song.
It’s a rich vein to be mined, with some larger than life characters to be encountered, and it was to be hoped that The Passion of the Playboy Riots, which has opened at the Hen and Chickens in Islington and runs till July 8th, would prove both entertaining and instructive. As Alan Bennett has said, theatre is often at its best when it’s school.
Unfortunately it’s only occasionally satisfying. Much as one wanted to admire this play, which is often witty and literate, it amounts to no more than a series of whimsical vignettes held together by the loosest of narrative lines. The play, which is barely 50 minutes long, needs to be longer and fleshed out – one of the few times this is true of a play. It is also, unhappily, indifferently performed and directed.
The play, a three hander, consists of three consecutive scenes, each of which is set backstage at The Abbey Theatre Dublin during a production of a famous play. In the first, in 1902, Lady Gregory (Cath Humphrys), an Anglo-Irish aristocrat, soothes an agitated William Butler Yeats (Loclann O’Grady) at the opening night of Cathleen ni Hoolihan before an earnest young barrister and would be writer Patrick Pearse (Justin McKenna) comes backstage to meet his heroes.
He shows Yeats a collection of his short stories – a startling number of which seem to feature the ill-classified adventures of various ‘little lads’. Yeats is unimpressed, he gives Pearse a small lecture on the depredation of the Corn Laws and Lady Gregory gives him another lecture on the importance of a purely Irish theatre for the Irish to impress the English overlords.
At the next meeting, in 1907, it’s the famous production of JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, when the audience is in near riot at the apparently unpatriotic and scurrilous portrayal of Irish rural life and its morals. Once again Lady Gregory and Yeats are backstage and once again they encounter Pearse – but a much changed man from five years earlier.
The timorous young man has been replaced by a self-righteous moralist, who’s also clearly a bit bonkers. If he were alive today and Muslim rather than fervently Catholic, he’d be a Jihadist. He decries the play being performed only a few feet away as an insult to Ireland and in particular to its saintly womanhood, who, in a line from the play, are called ‘a drift of females in their shifts.’
Once again, the talk turns to Home Rule and it is clear Pearse, who appears to welcome bloodshed, has moved several steps beyond Yeats and Lady Gregory.
In the third and final scene we’ve fast forwarded a mere 19 years to 1926 and it’s another play and another riot – this time the Abbey audience is in uproar over the production of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars.
Lady Gregory and Yeats are backstage again, and though Pearse has long since gone to his much-sought martyrdom, they meet the young actor who has to recite Pearse’s words in the play.
It’s the same routine as before, though Yeats and Lady Gregory are much sadder if a little wiser. Their hopes have come to little, and they are dismayed that the new nationalism has taken on a dogmatic quality and says you can’t be an Irish nationalist without being entirely Irish and entirely Catholic. Lady Gregory has had family home burnt down by the IRA.
And that’s it: quick jaunt through 24 years of Irish literary history with a few good one liners thrown in. We know little, if anything, of these characters beyond their attitudes to nationalism and literature. At the end there’s an allusion to Lady Gregory’s unrequited love for Yeats, who’s been much too gone on Maud Gonne to notice, but it’s no more than a passing reference. It’s thrown in as an afterthought and is undeveloped.
Pearse has a little more going on than the other two, but, for the most part we’re left entirely unaware of what drives these people as human beings. Much as I respect the playwright’s reluctance to write what we don’t know, a work of drama needs more recognisable human beings than this provides.
Other aspects of the production don’t help. At times, it is quite amateurish.
One doesn’t expect West End production values at the Hen and Chickens, of course, but this has had clearly very little money spent on it at all. The set consists of three obviously 21st century seats up stage centre upon which Gregory and Years ponder the world and the arts, occasionally peering through the backdrop curtain to see the Abbey stage as the words of the unseen actors become suddenly audible at startling volume.
For the second scene we get three clearly plastic fire buckets and three plastic axes, one of which Yeats seizes to confront the truculent audience. The costumes worn by the two men bear no resemblance to those of the early twentieth century, and for the 1902 scene Yeats wears a bowtie that would be more at home in the circus. In the 1907 scene on press night his clip-on bowtie came adrift and hung flaccidlly at half mast for the duration of the scene. It is churlish, perhaps, to point these things out but one can’t help noticing.
There’s a few crunching of gears in the performances too. In particular, Loclann O’Grady cruises through the evening in a very low gear. The Hen and Chickens is not the space in which to over-emote, but he takes it quite a bit too far. He does, however, bear a very close resemblance to WB Yeats.
Justin McKenna’s performance is the most complete of the evening, with a nicely balanced shift from tentative young man trying to make his mark to fully committed revolutionary and firebrand, fully meriting Conor Cruise O’Brien’s later summation: ‘Pearse saw the Easter Rising as a passion play with real blood.’
Cath Humphrys will no doubt grow in confidence during the run of the show, but she is given far little to do in a greatly under-written part. Gregory was a writer and activist in her own right and not just Yeats’ sidekick and wistful would-be lover.
Neal Weatherall’s direction does not help the under-polished quality of the production. The three characters often stand motionless for long periods in triangle formation. McKenna spends most of one scene standing at 90 degrees to the audience in profile, so that one half of his face his hidden. This could, in fact, be a reference to Pearse’s acute sensitivity to his squint which made him always adopt a sideways pose for the camera, but it doesn’t work on stage.
This work is admirable in so many ways. But at the moment it needs a rewrite and perhaps direction by someone not the writer.