Every so often the question continues to be asked about whether theatre can really change society, and/or the political direction of a nation. The Passion of the Playboy Riots takes a different slant, asking historically whether theatre did so, looking in particular at the events surrounding Home Rule in Ireland.
For WB Yeats (Loclann O’Grady), the activist tactics of the likes of Patrick Pearse (Justin McKenna), resulting in the Easter Rising of 1916, in turn contributing eventually to a split in Ireland that wasn’t there before. (To this day, six counties in the north remain part of the United Kingdom, the rest part of the Irish Republic.) That is to say, the way in which the Irish Republic was established was too violent, and therefore too divisive. This is a very well-constructed argument, I thought, until I realised Yeats was speaking with the benefit of hindsight.
There are moments when dramatic licence is used to put in pithy observations that probably would not have been said in so many words between 1902 and 1926. That the play covers such a long period in a single act is a testament to what must have been some ruthless editing to the script. I wonder, however, whether there is such a thing as being too ruthless. Here, events happen very quickly indeed that occasionally it is a struggle to keep up. That said, the alternative is much worse, and at least the brisk pace helps to maintain focus and attention.
Speed isn’t everything however, and with the set in this production being relatively light, it’s heavily reliant on the dialogue, so much so that the smallest of superfluities is, fairly or unfairly, detectable.
Thus Yeats’ digs, whilst in conversation with Lady Gregory (Cath Humphrys), about Jesus Christ and Patrick Pearse, seem unnecessary at best, and potentially offensive to those who practice religion at worst. Yeats’ yearning for Irish Home Rule to be established through negotiation rather than by the sword jars considerably with a generally abrasive and sarcastic manner. Later, Yeats almost roars, “We’re going to get our country back!” Make of that what you will in the light of recent political rhetoric on both sides of the pond.
Humphrys’ portrayal of Lady Gregory was the most compelling performance by quite a margin, with both Yeats and Pearse, despite holding opposing views – and, apparently, literary styles – being as stiff as people with acute cases of arthritis. Humphrys has raw charisma, to borrow her character’s description of an off-stage actor, and some of what is said remains remarkably relevant to contemporary times. For instance, her assertion that theatre “should do more than entertain the middle classes” is still a message that needs to be heeded more than a century later.
These various attempts to link events decades ago to what is happening now, in 2017, taken together, comes across as a tad contrived. The play is, undoubtedly, well-researched (the audience is either treated to or dragged through a rather detailed précis of the Corn Laws and its implications in relation to the nineteenth-century Irish economy), but I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that the play need not necessarily have the celebrated Yeats and Pearse expressing differences of opinion. This could just as well be a heated conversation between anyone in Ireland alive at the time – I would have loved to hear more from an off-stage heckler who disagreed with Yeats, for instance. Nonetheless, this is an informative production and one that provided some food for thought.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The Passion of the Playboy Riots is based on the published writings of W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, who founded the Irish Literary Theatre, and Patrick Pearse, a charismatic but troubled schoolteacher and the first of the leaders of the Easter Rising to face the firing squad. It tells the true story of the role played by theatre in the origins of the IRA.
Can art be propaganda? Can propaganda be art?
The Passion of the Playboy Riots is set backstage during performances of ground-breaking Irish plays: Cathleen ni Hoolihan in 1902, The Playboy of the Western World in 1907 and The Plough and the Stars in 1926. Yeats and Lady Gregory want to raise the profile and status of Irish culture in support of the campaign for Home Rule, and to support the best new Irish writers. They are shocked when Pearse and others accuse them of being unpatriotic and insufficiently Irish.
The Passion of the Playboy Riots
Writer/Director Neil Weatherall
Lochlann O’Grady – W. B. Yeats
Cath Humphry – Lady Gregory
Justin McKenna – Patrick Pearse
Producer Cameron Bell
Performance Dates June 27 th 2017 – July 8 th 2017
June 27th – July 8th 2017, Hen and Chickens Theatre