The Playboy of the Western World
Jamil Joseph as Christoper and Rebecca Ballinger as Pegeen star in the Playboy of the Western World; Credit: Solas Nua

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In 2007, Nigerian Irish playwright, performer, and documentarian Bisi Adigun and Irish novelist Roddy Doyle collaborated on an updated version of The Playboy of the Western World, arguably Ireland’s most famous play. Doyle’s DNA—felt in both The Commitments and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha—runs throughout the work, from his way of capturing the domestic dramas of working-class Dubliners to his lyrical slang and his deep understanding of contemporary Irish history. Commissioned by Adigun’s theater company Arambe Productions, Ireland’s first and only pan-African theater company, the adaptation was produced at the Abbey Theatre for the centenary celebration of the infamous drama by J.M. Synge

Adigun and Doyle’s The Playboy of the Western World makes its U.S. debut with D.C.’s contemporary Irish arts company Solas Nua at Atlas Performing Arts Center this month. Members of both the Irish and Nigerian embassies were in attendance on press night, as was Adigun, celebrating the first U.S. production of any of his plays. (Kudos to producer Rex Daugherty for pursuing this opportunity.) The adaptation, which maintains all the movements of Synge’s plot and retains his major characters, crackles with tensions about national identity, cultural assimilation, and prescribed gender roles. It’s also hilarious … until the jokes go too far. 

When Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World premiered in Dublin in 1907, riots erupted at the Abbey Theatre. This was at the beginning of the Irish Literary Revival, when poets, playwrights, and novelists wrote against British rule and for Irish independence. Plays such as George Bernard Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island (1904) and Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902) by William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory exemplified this narrative that the British are colonizing brutes while the Irish are poets or warriors or pure-spirited farmers and villagers (and, often, some mythologized combination). The Playboy of the Western World, with its amoral and antiheroic characters, its (relatively) frank references to sex, and its challenges to Irish nationalism, were an affront to theatergoers’ sensibilities. A few years later, the U.S. tour of the play also elicited boos. The actors were even arrested for licentious depictions. 

But that was more than 100 years ago. No one would boo or hiss at Synge’s play today, now firmly established as a masterpiece of modern Irish drama. And this adaptation, still as violent and irresistible as its charming lead, is not to be missed. 

Adigun radically updates the play by making the titular playboy a Nigerian asylum-seeker and considering the challenges faced by Nigerian immigrants moving into the tight knit, racially and religiously homogeneous communities throughout Ireland. Irish Catholic missionaries had been active in Nigeria since the 1920s, even anointing St. Patrick the patron saint of Nigeria. Much more recently, Nigerians have come to make up Ireland’s largest African immigrant population and the year that the play was first performed (2007), Rotimi Adebari, a Nigerian-born religious refugee, was elected the first Black mayor in Ireland. 

Directed with a light touch by Shanara Gabrielle, who knows that the play should resonate with a dry sense of Irish humor until the darkness sinks in, the play starts off with a comedic meet-cute. Set in a run-down Dublin pub in 2007, the unflappable bartender Pegeen (Rebecca Ballinger) and the charming Nigerian asylum-seeker Christoper (Jamil Joseph) both realize they are too clever for the dull lives they find themselves trapped in due to parental and societal demands. 

Pegeen’s father, Michael (Ian Armstrong), is a wannabe mob boss, all swagger and stories, who wishes to marry her off to the hapless and cowardly Sean (James Lacey), whose only redeeming quality is his widowed mother’s money and connections. Ballinger plays Pegeen as both full of spirit but jaded; she sighs and rolls her eyes at the antics of the ‘eejit’ men trying to control her life and doesn’t want to be married to the worst of the lot. 

Christopher, who has fled Nigeria after killing his father, is handsome, polite, and speaks in pure poetry. It’s no wonder the pragmatic Pegeen falls for this young man who represents an escape from her provincial life. 

Christopher retells his story of the patricide—becoming ever more dramatic, slightly changing the motives depending on his audience, and developing a fan base among the pub crawlers. The clueless mobsters Jimmy and Philly (Ryan Tumulty and Matthew Pauli in comic slack-jawed Guy Ritchie-esque supporting performances), the oversexed trio of Derry Girls (purring and pawing Rachel Lawhead, Danielle Gallo, and Erin Denman), and the notorious Widow Quin (Jessica Lefkow strutting across the stage in a sparkly tracksuit) hang on every word. Christopher often finds himself looking into the pub’s mirrors, growing in his confidence and appreciating his hold on all the eligible bachelorettes in town, but what is reflected back are the fears and desires of those molding him in racialized stereotypes: violent, hypersexual, a Nigerian prince. Joseph slowly unravels Christoper’s psyche from scared refugee to local celebrity, but always an outsider. 

The first act is a lot of drinking, flirting, laughing, telling tall tales of brave deeds and making new mates at the pub. And it’s all malarkey. 

When the decidedly not-dead father, Malomo (JJ Johnson), returns for revenge and a rival mob gang attacks Michael, the tonal shift of the play is drastic. The bold Christopher is exposed as something else altogether—a cowardly, lazy prodigal son. And this is where adhering so strictly to Synge’s plot sobers audiences up. 

The second half lags a little as the hangover sets in. The plotlines become a bit muddied as the violence increases. In one of the play’s ugliest scenes, Christopher is tied up by an unruly mob. This happens in Synge’s original, too, but when it’s a group of white working-class Irish men attempting to lynch a Black man, the same scene moves from dismantling Celtic self-mythologizing to contemporary issues of anti-Black racism and xenophobic violence. Despite that moment of terror, the play ends on a lighter note—maybe not too much has changed altogether, but Pegeen and Christopher are both bruised though not broken, learning a little more about themselves, and able to stand up to their parents. 

Ballinger and Joseph do most of the heavy lifting for the play, but the whole cast is stellar, eliciting laughs while taking the piss out of each other and bringing discomfort as they turn to beating the piss out of each other. Cultural consultant Sulmane Maigadi and fight director Sierra Young both helped to stage difficult scenes of cultural conflict, microaggressions, and violence. Danielle Preston’s costuming—think lots of velour tracksuits and rebellious schoolgirl plaid with punk denim jackets—perfectly captures the terrible fashion of the times. Nadir Bey’s simple set, black-and-white checkered floors, wood paneled walls, and a signed photo of Riverdance’s Michael Flatley hanging near crossed hurley sticks, in the traverse space creates a sense of immediacy and intimacy. If only Guinness were served to us all. 

Take two aspirin, avoid bright lights, and enjoy this timeless drama of who belongs (and who doesn’t), and what stories we tell and believe about ourselves. 

Solas Nua’s The Playboy of the Western World, directed by Shanara Gabrielle and written by Bisi Adigun and Roddy Doyle, runs through Nov. 20 at Atlas Performing Arts Center. solasnua.org. $5–$45; Thursday evenings are pay what you can.