JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World sparked riots at Dublin’s Abbey Theater on its debut in 1907, and gave the modern drama one of its most charismatic antiheroes. The actions of Christy Mahon, the titular “playboy”, invert the tragic core of Oedipus and present parricide (at least the attempted parricide) as an amoral comedy.
The piece retains its mischief, even if it has lost its shock value. Synge’s satirical jabs at the expense of a gullible and ethically fickle peasantry, who embrace the outsider for his crimes, are rooted in a world of tales and colloquial extravagances that remain seductive.
In 1984, under the direction of Nicolas Kent, then running North London’s Tricycle, the Trinidad-born playwright Mustapha Matura transplanted Synge’s masterpiece to his native circa 1950s when it was under British rule. This established a colonial kinship, and the play was hailed as a shrewd act of appropriation. Matura, the first colored British playwright to have a job in the West End (Play Mas, 1974), took Christy and made him Ken, who walks into a bar in a fishing village and draws attention by saying he killed his father.
Matura clings to the original, while making the work “own”. “He was a dirty man, God forgive him, and he was getting old and grumpy,” Christy happily explains in Synge. In Matura it becomes more blatant, simpler: “He was a perverse man, and the older he gets, the more perverse he gets. A limit to reach me.”
What I still haven’t said is that this Birmingham revival is a new musical version, something Matura was working on at the time of his sudden death in 2019. Clement Ishmael and Dominique LeGendre completed the project, cutting text and contributing music and lyrics, teaming up with Kent, too, to direct. I wish I could give it the most applause as a fitting tribute, but in a way Synge himself offered words of wisdom in his 1907 preface that should have been heard.
He disdained modern drama as too flat and unnatural in its speech, and denounced “musical comedy” as a false substitute for genuine vitality. He declared, “In a good play, every speech should be as flavored as a nut or an apple.”
The point here is that when every speech is so seasoned, you run the risk of gilding the spatula lily in musical numbers. While you might believe that those who frequent the rum bar run by dreamy Peggy (Gleanne Purcell-Brown) and her father Mikey (McCallam Connell) would start singing, the fact that the band is not situated with the musicians on the Rep’s main stage increases the sense of artifice and intrusion.
Instead of a song springing up naturally out of confab, the song often intrudes, slowing things down. A ding-dong sung among the bar flies about which comes first, prosperity or respectability, for example, adds calypso rhythms without lending any dramatic flesh; there’s something shocking too about the characters singing Matura’s dialogue without it being fully molded into music.
In a smaller space like the Tricycle (now Kiln), audibility wouldn’t be an issue, and the cast wouldn’t be as exposed. Durone Stokes has presence and a sweet voice like Ken, though perhaps very little swashbuckling extroversion. There is a rare frisson as the sympathetic and eager Peggy of Purcell-Brown runs her hand over the handsome intruder’s chest and licks his sweat; more of that nuanced intensity would be welcome.
Some of the numbers are promising, but the problem is exactly that everything looks “by numbers”. What started more than a century ago causing a stir is now more fulfilling than killing; the richest dark comedy became something light, banal and forgettable.
Until July 2nd. Tickets: 0121 236 4455; birmingham-rep.co.uk