In The Passion of the Playboy Riots, writer/director Neil Weatherall imagines a meeting in the early 20th Century between W.B. Yeats (Loclann O’Grady) and Lady Gregory (Cath Humphrys), two of the founders of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and leading lights in the Irish Literary Revival, and Patrick Pearse (Justin McKenna), one of the future leaders of the Easter Rising and the man who read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic outside the General Post Office.
As fellow Irish patriots, law student Pearse assumes that Yeats and Gregory must surely be interested in staging his allegorical plays about Irish life. It turns out they are not, and Pearse goes away to devote his time to other ways of achieving home rule, such as encouraging his fellow patriots to disrupt performances at the Abbey Theatre.
This is a play about the two Irelands, the ones who want home rule but have also benefitted from British rule, and those who want home rule because they haven’t benefited from British rule. And sometimes, as Yeats observes, the line between these two groups is hard to determine.
Either way, it is divisive, and in a United Kingdom still struggling to deal with the results of last year’s EU referendum and U.S. election – both of which, although mainly the former, could impact on the fragile peace in today’s Republic of Ireland – this feels rather topical. The problem is, Weatherall’s attempts to draw parallels between then and now are largely confined to lines which feel like they’ve been crowbarred into the script, about taking back control and making the country great again. The cast, understandably, struggles to make these lines feel free real. They might as well have winked broadly to the audience as they delivered them.
The Passion of the Playboy Riots has an interesting and topical premise but could do with a re-write. It also succeeds more when it comments on the theatre and writing than when it does on nationhood and politics. An exploration of Yeats, a man of contradictions who changed his viewpoint on politics many times throughout his life, may have made for a more satisfying play.