No longer playing it for laughs in The Playboy of the Western World

Blue Raincoat’s production of The Playboy streamlines the comedy and brings out the darker side of the play, writes Padraic Killeen


HAVING premiered in Sligo last year, Blue Raincoat’s exhilarating production of JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World is taking off on a national tour.

Directed by Niall Henry and featuring stalwarts of the Raincoat ensemble such as Sandra O’Malley and Bob Kelly, the production offers a dark and unnerving portrait of an Irish community. Among other things, the comedy — so often amplified in other productions — is notably streamlined by Henry, and to tremendous effect.

“I think the cooling of the comedy and the exposing of the darker side of the play really brings out the beauty of the language,” says Fiona McGeown, who plays the Widow Quin with wonderful brio. “The language is so poetic and evocative — it’s like Shakespeare.”

McGeown is a veteran of many Raincoat productions. She believes the distinctive charm of this production also stems from the unique rehearsal process.

“Every day we would go through the play right to its conclusion,” she says. “We’d begin at the beginning and end at the end, and that was very interesting. At times I would only get to do my scenes once. So you had to grasp your chance. We didn’t have the opportunity to repeat, repeat, repeat, which would have been a process the Raincoats had over the years. But that process lost some spontaneity, I found. So this was a really gorgeous way to approach the play.”

The Widow Quin is often played for laughs as a ribald, grotesque vision of unhinged femininity, but McGeown’s version is wonderfully earthy and nuanced. Like the play’s hero, Christy Mahon, the widow is an outsider, and McGeown imbues her with an enigmatic sensitivity.

“She’s the most humane character,” she says. “There’s a vulnerable side to her. There’s a scene between herself and the playboy when you really feel her vulnerability. She’s set up to be the trickster but in the scene she actually says what she wants, and then she’s shot down, of course. And the beauty of it is that she has to continue on with this game, even though you can feel this sad creature that has been shot down again. But she keeps her dignity and her humanity and I think that’s really one of the most beautiful things about her.”

Her turn as the Widow Quin is not McGeown’s only success of late. Her own theatre company Painted Bird scored a great hit last year with Between Trees and Water, a play examining a case of illegal abortion that ended with the death of a young Cork woman in 1939. McGeown and her colleagues are now working on a new play, The Amazing Philanthropists, due to premiere at Cork Midsummer Festival next year.

“Again, it’s a part of Cork’s cultural history,” says McGeown. “It’s based on a book by Suzanne Day. She was elected as a Poor Law guardian in 1914 and wrote this work of docu-fiction about her experience. It’s a satirical look at the corruption in the workhouse and the Poor Law system in Cork, her role as a woman, and her dealings with a committee of men.”

Originally a native of Armagh, McGeown now lives in Kinsale. “I’m loving it here,” she says. “Everyone has been incredibly supportive, between Corcadorca, Triskel Arts Centre, the Theatre Development Centre, Cork City Council and the County Council, all of whom have helped Painted Bird with the development of the work. For somebody who’s only been here three years, it’s been pretty incredible.”

The Playboy of the Western World runs at Everyman, Cork, Oct 5-10; Ballina Arts Centre, Mayo, Oct 13-14; Garter Lane Arts Centre, Waterford, Oct 15-17; Lime Tree, Limerick, Oct 21; Roscommon Arts Centre, Oct 24; Town Hall Theatre, Galway, Oct 29-31


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