CIVILISED people everywhere will nod in condign approval at the fate of the Abbey Theatre's production of a "contemporised" version of 'Playboy of the Western World'. Roddy Doyle and the Nigerian writer Bisi Adigun co-wrote an adaptation of Synge's greatest work, in which the central character of Christie Mahon was rendered as a Nigerian asylum seeker.
This was staged at the Abbey in 2007, and an apparently slightly different version was presented the following year. The two productions led to legal action by the Nigerian against both The Abbey and Roddy Doyle, resulting in legal bills and compensation that have cost the Abbey in the region of €500,000.
Now, such an absurd amount of money could only have been squandered so frivolously in the knowledge that that the bill would ultimately be paid by that brainless dupe, the taxpayer, from whom The Abbey gets €7m a year, via the Arts Council. It is an ancient truth that subsidies too easily fertilise folly; however, the prime idiocy here was not the legal issue, but the sacrilege of making an existing masterpiece "relevant" to today's audiences.
The four greatest Irish comedies also tower over all English drama: Goldsmith's 'She Stoops to Conquer', Sheridan's 'The Rivals', Wilde's 'The Importance of Being Earnest' and Synge's 'Playboy'. They are almost sacred texts, and need little or no alteration for today's audiences. But 'Playboy' also exists in another dimension. Apart from being a superbly funny work of art, it is perhaps the most prescient piece of drama in Irish political history.
In its portrayal of the reverence felt by a community of Irish peasants for a man suspected of murdering his father, it uncannily foreshadowed the widespread respect that would, just a few years later, be accorded the killers of policemen. Moreover, the riots that it triggered at the Abbey over the use of the word "shift" as an article of women's underwear, elevates the play into a unique position in Irish dramaturgy, since the rioters unintentionally exhibited precisely the kind of dysfunctional and irrational behaviour that had made the play possible in the first place.
Thus 'Playboy' is sacrosanct: leave it alone. But of course, the Abbey didn't, and all too typically. Repeatedly, theatre has tried to make something written in another era "modern", presumably either because audiences might not understand it, or its themes are not wholly relevant to today.
The most otiose and absurd that comes to mind was the film-version of 'Richard III', starring the endlessly-preening Ian McKellen. Now we all know that this play is a study of megalomaniac evil. It needs no modernising to explain it. Nonetheless, the preposterous film-version relocated the play into the 1930s, and presented Richard's follower as black-uniformed SS men, presumably because the Father Dougals in the audience needed some guidance as to just who the baddies were.
The one time that I attempted to watch this excruciating travesty ended in Act One, Scene One, with a brick through the Sony widescreen, so I cannot aver that what follows is a certain truth; but according to Wikipedia, the scene in which Richard cries out: "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse," features a jeep. I rest my case.
Somewhat closer to home, was the Abbey's 1997 production of 'The Importance of Being Earnest'. Now the play is just about dramatic perfection: to give it a political dimension is like mixing concrete in Meissen pottery. But instead of settling for genius, the Abbey production supplied a new gay rights ending, in which Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for sodomy. Why not introduce a rampantly lesbian sister into 'Pride and Prejudice', to explain that the novel is actually about women's sexuality?
Occasionally, an existing masterpiece can be successfully reshaped, as with 'Throne of Blood', Kurosawa's adaptation of 'Macbeth'. But this is the exception which proves the rule. None of these mitigating factors existed for The Abbey version of 'Playboy'. Roddy Doyle is a deservedly successful novelist, but not a genius. Moreover, he and his co-writer were not engaged in a major act of artistic re-creation, but adapting what was already close to perfection.