A well-intentioned but badly executed love letter to Irish theatre at the Hen and Chickens Theatre, The Passion of the Playboy Riots needs a bit more passion and a lot more riot. The script has potential but is expositional and repetitive. The production is too ambitious and would benefit from focusing more specifically on the text, and the production values add very little.
Neil Weatherall’s new play Passion of the Playboy Riots explores the role of theatre in the development of the IRA and the political climate of revolutionary Ireland. Based on the writings of WB Yeats and Lady Gregory, it is set backstage during performances of three of Ireland’s most memorable plays; Cathleen Ni Houlihan, The Playboy of the Western World and The Plough and the Stars.
When I read about The Passion of the Playboy Riots, I was hoping at the very least for something witty, sharp and to the point, if not a lovingly executed homage to some of the great plays of the Irish struggles. Unfortunately, the play itself lacks the passion and riot I was hoping for. In my opinion, Irish theatre should be messy, full of lively and dangerous characters and politics that doesn’t just emanate from the words spoken but from the actual bodies on stage. The conversations between Yeats and Lady Gregory, whilst a good character study and a retelling of the events, eventually becomes repetitive and full of expositional dialogue.
This is not to say the play has no potential. Weatherall’s passion for the subject matter is clear; the writing is well crafted in places, the jokes frequent and often funny. At its core, there’s a good play there; it just needs a good edit and perhaps another angle to balance the long scenes of dialogue.
Unfortunately, Weatherall has fallen into the trap of directing The Passion of the Playboy Riots himself. I think this is often a mistake for writers as their judgement is often skewed by their vibrant imaging of their work on stage. What this needed was a dramaturg or even better a different director, picking out the strengths of this play (of which there are many) and drawing out those elements (and only those elements) needed to bring this story to life. Instead, within a small pub theatre, they have tried to do everything; set, costume, sound effects, props and even some projection. A number of jokes fell flat because the timing was off and I felt frustrated that time and energy had been poured into props and costumes rather than focused on drawing the best out of the script.
Had this been a rehearsed reading, with the timing, register and meaning of the play rehearsed to much greater precision, this would have been a much more successful production and a much better showcase of Weatherall’s writing. Much of the stage time is spent with the characters simply standing and talking; the space itself not affording enough room for much movement. There is often an inclination to do everything that could contribute to a theatrical experience rather than focusing on crafting that theatrical experience with carefully chosen elements that add specifically to the dramaturgy. Yeats often repeats the line ‘Everyone’s a dramaturg’; it’s just such a pity they couldn’t find one for this production.
I do not hope this production ends here. I think with a rework of the script and some proper dramaturgical advice and direction, it really could be dramatically improved. At the moment however, it is trying to create a vibrant theatrical world with mismatched and clunky mise-en-scene and a script that needs a bit more bite to really bring it into the revolution.