Textually, Oonagh Murphy’s nightmarish reimagining of JM Synge’s once contentious The Playboy of the Western World remains firmly rooted in the lonesome west of Ireland. Geographically, it has shifted to the Derry/Donegal borderlands during the1980s, a time and place where random killings and abandoned bodies were everyday occurrences. As Brexit hovers, fear of the return of violence again stalks those lands.
The play’s central conceit remains disturbing: a young vagabond boasts about killing his father and is welcomed into a community, where drink, religion and a good story alleviate an otherwise dreary existence.
The stench of alcohol and tobacco seeps from Molly O’Cathain’s drinking den set, a grim prison for the caged bird who is Pegeen Mike (a spirited Eloïse Stevenson), daughter of publican Michael James Flaherty (played with sad realism by Charlie Bonner). Trapped in a male-dominated milieu, in an arranged engagement with pious zealot Shawn Keogh (Michael Condron), her femininity is glimpsed in her pretty bedroom above the bar. In the late 20th century, it is difficult to imagine women like Pegeen and the predatory Widow Quinn (Aoibhéann McCann) putting up with it.
Some characterisations are overblown and the Northern delivery is not consistently suited to Synge’s rich, poetic text. Michael Shea’s weedy, timid Christy comes armed with a ripping yarn, but he relates it so unconvincingly that doubts immediately surface between the women who will jostle for his favours. What should be a shocking climax is enlivened by Frankie MCafferty’s sprightly intervention as Old Mahon, half of a father-son double act, destined to wreak havoc wherever it lands.