The Playboy of Beijing

  • 20 December 2006
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The relocation of the the Playboy of the Western World to contemporary, suburban China recaptures the play's entertainment for Colin Murphy



As the final act of last year's Synge Cycle by Druid, one of the cast went backstage, brought out a framed portrait of JM Synge, and held it at the front of the stage while the audience applauded. It was a benediction of sorts: Druid had “done” Synge; for the time being, further attempts would be superfluous.

Pan Pan Theatre has recently given us Oedipus as a postmodern rock musical and Macbeth 7, a wittily deconstructed, multimedia Macbeth which made a virtue of the play's overexposure. The company is adept at deconstructing classics – but even deconstruction can become predictable. What to do, then, with the Playboy? Why, like all materials in need of recycling, take it to China.

And it is not just set in China – the production is authentically Chinese. The play was adapted by director Gavin Quinn to a contemporary, suburban Chinese context, then translated by Yue Sun. It is set in a “whoredresser's” – a bogus hairdresser's that acts as a front for a brothel in Beijing. Quinn cast and rehearsed the play in China, where it premièred earlier this year.

The result is a new and different energy in this tired, old, beautiful play. Translating it to China – a land more alien to most of us than the farthest recesses of postmodernism – obviates the need to deconstruct. The translation itself is both homage and subversion.

The adaptation is a pretty faithful, urbanised rendition of the original: make the shebeen a brothel, take the women out of the rags and put them in miniskirts and knee-high boots, put the men in suits and leathers, substitute a suburban bicycle race for the beach horse race, drop in a clutch of references to Hong Kong, the mafia, and Osama bin Laden, and you have the Playboy in Beijing.

Gavin Quinn appears to have married elements of traditional or conventional Chinese theatre with Irish naturalism: for an Irish audience, this Chinese cast bring a strange and affecting formalism to their performance. The effect is to lend the play something of the sense of ritual – which is compounded by the effect of scanning the largely-familiar text as it flashes above the actors' heads, while trying to concentrate on their performances in this beautiful, but alien, language.

And those glances at the subtitles are rewarding (not just for their eye-pleasing design).

One of the men: “Fucking cool, there's a daring fellow.”

Lala: “Whist, I'm saying.”

And as Lala pouts in front of the salon mirror in her lurid pink coat and white fuck-me boots, the screen reads: “He is surely, and leaving me lonesome in this dark place.”
Any sense of tragedy, of real darkness, or of Synge's prized linguistic authenticity is lost in translation here. Instead, this Chinese Playboy allows us to enjoy the excesses of Synge's language without feeling guilty for mocking an icon. In sexing-up the Playboy, Pan Pan have sacrificed some of the bitter edge to it but have recaptured the entertainment.

Just two mild regrets, both to do with money. It's a shame that such a talented cast came all the way without performing something from their own canon. And that, having come so far and at such expense to a country with such a large, dynamic Chinese population, the show was not able to run longer in order to allow word of mouth to spread amongst that community. (Pan Pan made notable efforts to attract a Chinese-Dublin audience, including reduced ticket prices, with some success.) Next time perhaps.


Playboy of the Western World by Pan Pan Theatre Company. Run finished at Project Arts Centre,