Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Neil Weatherall: The Passion Of The Playboy Riots

By | Published on Thursday 22 June 2017

When I heard about ‘The Passion Of The Playboy Riots’, which opens at Hen & Chickens next week, I was very interested for a number of reasons. The play is based on true events and features recognisable central characters but also has a very interesting structure, and, despite being set well in the past, has immense relevance for a contemporary audience.
To find out more about the show, I spoke to writer and director Neil Weatherall

CM: Can you start by telling us about the content of the show? What story are you telling, and how does it unfold?
NW: ‘The Passion of the Playboy Riots’ is set backstage during performances of ground-breaking Irish plays: ‘Cathleen ni Hoolihan’ in 1902, ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ in 1907 and ‘The Plough And The Stars’ in 1926. WB Yeats and Lady Gregory want to raise the profile and status of Irish culture in support of the campaign for Home Rule, and to support the best new Irish writers. They are shocked when Patrick Pearse and others accuse them of being unpatriotic and insufficiently Irish.

The heart of the story is the relationships and unrequited loves of the three characters, set against a backdrop of the Easter Rising and the subsequent Irish War of Independence and Irish Civil War.

CM: Are the events depicted based on truth? How close to the actual truth are they?
NW: It’s very close to the truth. The people are real, their conversations and confrontations and romances are all real, the major historical events we refer to are all real, and the plays that are being performed in the wings of our play are all real. Our only real dramatic licence was to take conversations that took place largely in print and to reimagine them taking place face to face, backstage at the theatre.

Professor Roy Foster, author of the definitive biography of our main character WB Yeats, very kindly provided historical emendations to earlier drafts of the play, and had this to say about the finished result: “I enjoyed reading and subsequently watching ‘The Passion of the Playboy Riots’. The author takes some liberties with history, but that doesn’t affect the heft and direction of a play which is funny, taut and thought-provoking, particularly the third act in which the actor who’s been playing Patrick Pearse plays an actor playing a character based on Pearse, ten years after Pearse’s death. Theatrically this was very effective.”

CM: Can you tell us a bit about each of the characters in the piece, and who they are played by?
NW: Yeats and Lady Gregory are Anglo-Irish Protestants who want to boost Ireland’s cultural self-esteem in support of the drive for Home Rule. At the start of the play Yeats is already one of the most celebrated poets in the English-speaking world, Lady Gregory is a wealthy widow with a passion for Ireland and for the Arts, and Patrick Pearse is a young lawyer who is at first enamoured with Yeats and Gregory but comes to despise their approach in favour of armed resistance to British rule.

All the cast look uncannily like the real life historical characters they portray. Yeats is played by Loclann O’Grady, a native Dubliner who grew up in Hong Kong, and Pearse is played by Justin McKenna, a native of Omagh who is almost too young to remember the Troubles. They’re both Irish through and through and bring insight and passion to their roles. Lady Gregory is played by Cath Humphrys, a wonderful actress I’ve always wanted to work with. She is naturally very funny, and strikes the right balance between the character’s obvious intellectual resilience and her well-hidden emotional vulnerability.

CM: How did the creative process work? Did you do a lot of research for this?
NW: Loads! It started with me skiving off from finishing the final draft of my last play and catching a telly programme about the 1916 Rising. They mentioned this theatre that provoked riots and I was intrigued. I did a lot of initial research online, then spent a few days in the British Library, and ended up with enough material for a TV series. This period of Anglo-Irish history is packed with brilliant characters and anecdotes. I already knew that I wanted my next play to have a very simple three act structure and a small cast, and as I read in to the subject, Yeats, Pearse and Lady Gregory suggested themselves as the star parts. I’ve always liked the idea of stories within stories, and I love plays set in theatres. The biggest challenge was how to include Patrick Pearse in the third act, ten years after his death. The solution now seems so obvious.

CM: What made you want to create a play with this theme? What attracted you to this subject matter?
NW: At first, I got a cheap laugh at the irony of bourgeois city folk in the Abbey Theatre rioting because they thought the play they were watching was implying that they were uncivilised. Then I became intrigued at the idea of theatre so powerful it could provoke serious civil unrest – and amused that this could ever happen unintentionally.

The more I read about the real people involved – complex, fascinating people, each in their own way highly admirable – the more I saw real life romance, heroism and tragedy – and cruel, dark, comedy, which I really like.

Some people seem surprised that I’ve no Irish ancestry or connections but the way I see it, this is a fascinating, topical and largely neglected chapter in British history. It literally changed the shape of my country, so I don’t feel I’m an interloper.

CM: How relevant is the subject to contemporary audiences? What resonance does it have for today?
NW: It couldn’t be more relevant. The play asks questions that we’ve been asking ourselves almost every day this summer. How do terrorist atrocities differ from legitimate acts of war? What do we mean by terrorism? To what extent is mental illness a factor? Is it fair or wise to try to make connections between very extreme religious views and mental illness? What do we mean when we talk about ‘our values’ and how should we react when we suspect that they’re being challenged or undermined by people with a public platform – including people working in the arts?

What is it that makes someone Irish, or British? Or Scottish, or European? Does it matter if the people who make our laws are from a different country? Where’s the dividing line between the happy, flag-waving kind of patriotism that most of us enjoy, and the dangerous and even violent kind of nationalism that most of us abhor?

The play doesn’t just ask these questions, it mixes them up and messes with your head.

CM: This is only your second play, isn’t it? What drew you to the theatre? What ambitions do you have for the future?
NW: Fringe theatre in London is the best way to get a quick result from your writing. You don’t need an agent and you don’t need much money. London is awash with talented actors and discerning audiences who want to see them in new plays.

Getting feedback on a draft novel or a screenplay can take effort and a lot of time; with fringe theatre, you can hear the laughter and the applause, and then if you want you can sit in the bar after the show, anonymously earwigging on conversations about the characters you drew and the story you told.

I write because I love the idea of making connections with more people that just the people I know. With theatre, you get that quick hit.

I’m still learning how to write drama, and my ambition is to keep learning.

CM: Are there further plans for ‘The Passion Of The Playboy Riots’?
NW: We plan to take this three act, fifty minute version on tour, and I’m going write a five act ninety minute draft and test with an expanded cast. The 25-year period of history we cover would actually support a miniseries. We’re already been asked if we’d be interested in making it into a one-off TV film.

CM: What’s coming up next for you?
NW: I’ve started reading into my next play, about Sigmund Freud. I studied him at university and the woman who took the course was a very devout follower of his and reacted with hostility to any critical questions. I take Eysenck’s view that the psychotherapy movement is not much more than a cult. I’ve been very respectful of Yeats, Pearse and Lady Gregory so it’ll be a nice relief to lay the boot in to my subject for a change.


‘The Passion Of The Playboy Riots’ is on at Hen & Chickens from 27 Jun-8 Jul, see this page here for info and to book.