Solas Nua mounts an updated ‘Playboy of the Western World’



Impertinent humor about rural Irish folk? A passing mention of underwear? Those aspects of Irish dramatist J.M Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” famously sparked riots upon the play’s 1907 debut. In 2022, as the contemporary Irish arts organization Solas Nua stages an updated adaptation — co-written by Nigerian Irish dramatist Bisi Adigun and Irish author Roddy Doyle in 2007, and set in a modern Dublin pub — explosiveness is not called for, at least in Adigun’s view. These days, he points out, we have a 24/7 news cycle to outrage us.

“While theater still retains its power to shock because of its immediacy, I don’t think it is necessary for it to shock any more, because we are shocked on a regular basis,” Adigun says, speaking via Zoom from Nigeria’s Osun state. As a playwright, he says, “My biggest responsibility is for people to come into a theater and be beautifully entertained.”

Solas Nua is the first company to produce the adaptation since Ireland’s renowned Abbey Theatre, which staged the world premiere and a later reprise. While providing entertainment, the D.C. production of Adigun and Doyle’s “Playboy” may be eye-opening to some. The Ireland the play depicts — multicultural, modern, urban — is far from the homogenous Emerald Isle of shamrock-strewn cliche, and equally distinct from the insular and drolly tawdry backwater portrayed in Synge’s original script.

Synge’s play tells of a rural County Mayo community that lionizes an outsider named Christy Mahon, the eponymous “playboy,” after he brags about murdering his father. When the play premiered, its offenses against national pride and prudishness — while proclaiming his love for a local girl, Christy alludes to women’s “shifts” — prompted members of the audience to hurl objects at the stage. Commotion also greeted the piece a few years later in the United States, home to many Irish Americans. The play is now viewed as a masterpiece of the Irish literary renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In Solas Nua’s “Playboy” — directed by Shanara Gabrielle — the Christy has become Christopher Malomo, a Nigerian man seeking refuge in modern Ireland, where he encounters Dublin gangsters. “It’s a perfect play for a contemporary Irish company to be producing because it really looks at who Ireland is now, which is the same question that Synge was asking in 1907 when the original script premiered,” says Rex Daugherty, artistic director of theater for Solas Nua.

Adigun says he conceived of the adaptation after arriving in Ireland during the “Celtic Tiger” economic boom. During that prosperous period, he says, Ireland’s culture industry strove to reflect the country’s increasing demographic diversity. In 2003, he founded Arambe Productions, said to be Ireland’s first African theater company.

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Around the time of Arambe’s founding, Adigun was asked to contribute an essay to an academic anthology titled “The Power of Laughter: Comedy and Contemporary Irish Theatre.” The topic assigned to him was “How I taught myself how to laugh at Irish jokes,” Adigun says. “As an outsider, as an immigrant, before you can understand an in-joke, you must understand the culture on which the joke is based. Tragedy is universal. Comedy is culture-bound.”

Searching for examples to use in the essay, he remembered having seen — and not entirely understood — a production of Synge’s “Playboy.” He understood Synge’s script better when he read it, and indeed had a epiphany: Christy, whose tale of a violent past prompts strangers to welcome him, is “an archetype of an asylum seeker,” Adigun says. For an asylum seeker, “the only thing that will get them asylum from what they are running from is how they tell their story.”

That flash of insight inspired the contemporary adaptation. An Arambe board member suggested to Adigun that he collaborate on the piece with Doyle, author of the novel on which the film “The Commitments” was based. Adigun embraced that idea, seeing the collaboration as a potential showcase for the power of what he likes to call “interculturalism.”

“If Roddy had written the play on his own, it wouldn’t have been as good as it is,” he says. “If I had written the play on my own, it wouldn’t have been as good as it is.”

Following the well-received debut of the duo’s “Playboy,” the Abbey staged a remount that triggered litigation over copyright issues, later settled. Waiting for another company to tackle the script has been like “Waiting for Godot,” Adigun jokes in a post-interview email, calling himself “genuinely proud” of Solas Nua for stepping up.

Daugherty stresses that while the play’s migration theme is serious, and its portrait of multicultural Ireland substantive, this “Playboy” “is very funny.”

“It’s a love story. It’s a comedy. And it’s this social observation of how race and culture both open hearts and close minds,” he says.

Adigun admits that he’s not averse to slipping audiences a little edification, as well as enjoyment. “I try as much as possible to give them entertainment to the best of my ability,” he says. “And if at the end of the day they are enlightened — fine.”

The Playboy of the Western World

Atlas Performing Arts center, 1333 H St. NE.

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