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Playwright Mustapha Matura’s reworking of the story from J M Synge’s Playboy of the Western World was first seen at this Kilburn theatre in 1984, at the end of a tour of its Oxford Playhouse première production by Nicolas Kent. Revived by the Tricycle in 1994, Kent now celebrates its twentieth anniversary by directing this new co-production with Nottingham Playhouse to coincide with his own twentieth anniversary at the Tricycle.
There is no need to know the original play to enjoy Matura’s version, which stands firmly on its own two feet. Celebrated though it is, I have never been quite able to connect with Synge’s play. People making a hero of a man who kills his father is not an easy idea to accept. It is not a play I have wanted to revisit, but perhaps I’ve been unlucky in the stagings I have seen. Somehow Matura makes it seem much more understandable. Perhaps it is because his Trinidadian setting is more exotic to a European; perhaps there is a gentle shift that hints more strongly that this parricide is lying, or that a clearer sensuality than a 1907 Irish audience would accept places the emphasis on an admiration of virility rather than murder. Perhaps it is because Matura’s play is very funny.
Everything happens in Mikey’s rum shop, run by his daughter Peg, for which designer Adrianne Lobel gives us a slat-boarded shack with palm trees and blue sky glimpsed through its walls. Mikey (Malcolm Frederick) plans to marry Peg to Ben Bennett’s wimpy Stanley. A fishing-boat-owning entrepreneur, he sees the village developing, the fishing fleet grown to six. With property comes respectability and combining fish with rum would make them the biggest property owners in he village.
But Peg, a quiet but stubborn girl as played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster, is not going along with it. This is a performance of gently understated authority suggesting innocence without naiveté alongside intelligent determination. When handsome Ken arrives, apparently on the run from killing his father with a cutlass and burying him in the cane fields, Peg responds to his charm and manliness and is increasingly attracted. So are all the women, from teenagers Alice and Ivy (Remi Wilson and Tracey Saunders) to Mama Benin, the local obeah woman, whom costume designer Anna Barbock gives long skirts and provides with necklaces and pouches of talismans and magic making bones. Joy Richardson doesn’t look as aged a Mama as the other characters treat her but she has a wicked way of flaunting herself and effectively suggests her meddling influence on village life.
Danny John-Jules, on the other hand, convincingly adds on the years as eccentric Mac, Ken’s father. The men who come in for rum and chat seem equally impressed and Shango Baku, Larrington Walker and especially Malcolm Frederick as Mikey, play some of the most convincing drunks I have seen for ages. As Ken, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith swells with the confidence that adulation gives him without quite hiding the frightened and vulnerable man beneath the surface. It is a performance that touches us with his vulnerability rather than reminding us of what he has done.
The Trinidadian dialogue requires some concentration by those not accustomed to it and in passing introduces a whole vocabulary of local expressions from garraing (talking for its own sake) to totie (penis), wine (gyrate the pelvis) and grancharging (bluffing). This doesn’t affect your understanding and they go so fast that you’ll probably miss most of them, though there is a glossary in the programme. This play is funny about masculinity, lust and small-minded businessmen, and its actors grasp the opportunities its well-drawn characters give them.
Howard Loxton © 2004
Originally published 10-12-04
Playboy of the West Indies opened at the Tricycle Theatre on 6 December 2004 and ran until 22 January 2005.
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