It’s not often that a production begins by someone from the company (Cameron Bell) getting up and admitting that they don’t like the show. I suppose it’s reverse psychology – by lowering the audience’s expectations and telling them the performance they are about to see is nothing short of awful, it is easier for patrons to be appreciative of something that doesn’t, as it happens, turn out to be a proverbial train smash. At the same time, it’s nothing new: note the prologue to Shakespeare’s Henry V, for instance, which ends with a plea to the audience, “…your humble patience pray / Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.”
I saw an earlier incarnation of The Passion of the Playboy Riots back in June 2017, and while I found it informative, there was also room for improvement. The narrative remains more or less the same: WB Yeats (1865-1939) (Neil Weatherall) and Lady Gregory (1852-1932) (Vanessa Corradi) open the Abbey Theatre in 1904 – the Abbey still operates, but the original building was destroyed by fire in 1951. The opening production is Yeats and Gregory’s Cathleen ni Houlihan, of which excerpts can be heard ‘off-stage’ (the conversations between Yeats and Gregory are somewhere backstage), with questionable Irish accents.
Completing the set of onstage characters is Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) (Justin McKenna, reprising the role from the play’s 2017 run), a revolutionary figure who was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916: the British executed him and other republican political activists thereafter. Yeats takes him to task, first for his literary efforts, which seemed to be rather unimaginative and then for his political views. Pearse’s desire for direct action doesn’t go down too well with Yeats and Gregory, who desire reform from within.
The production has decided, rightly, that less is more. Its earlier incarnation included so much detail that it was easy to get bamboozled by it – now, it flows a lot better, and with the added bonus (or dread) of audience participation. I hasten to add this is only in the collective form and seeks to add to the atmosphere at an apparently bad opening performance of JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theatre. (Readers with knowledge of the history of that play should be reassured that the audience is not asked to recreate the January 1907 riots which required police attendance.)
With a focus on the dialogue, few props are needed, though the show incorporates a suggestion from your reviewer in his 2017 review: “I would have loved to hear more from an off-stage heckler who disagreed with Yeats”. The production strikes the right balance between humour and seriousness, particularly against the backdrop of the fight for Irish independence. The explicit parallels drawn between Irish independence and the result of That Referendum have gone (thank goodness), and a play that doesn’t take itself too seriously is a play to be valued. The time and place for each of the scenes is made clear merely by telling the audience some background details. Simple but effective, which also sums up this vastly improved production, which portrays opposing viewpoints (passions, even) quite convincingly. At a time when the future of Anglo-Irish relations is again being debated, this politically and intellectually stimulating play is a worthy addition to the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe calendar.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The Passion of the Playboy Riots is a short play which packs a lot in. It looks at the relationship between Art and Propaganda over three acts and is centred around three historical Irish figures, WB Yeats, Lady Gregory and Patrick Pearse.
A mission set out by Yeats and Gregory to promote Irish culture and gain a degree of independence for Ireland soon spirals beyond their control into something altogether more tribal and violent.
The play will be performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at the PQA venue @Riddles Court (Venue 277) just off the royal Mile from August 10th to 26th 2019. It is very topical and relevant to Brexit, the Irish backstop and Scottish Independence.
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The Passion of the Playboy Riots
The Playboy Rioters
28th July 2019
19:30, running time 60 minutes
Bread and Roses @ The Chapel, 308-312 Grays Inn Road, London, WC1X 8DP