Entertainment & Arts

Robert Sheehan: From superhero to Playboy of the Western World

Robert Sheehan as Christy Mahon, with Niamh Cusack as Widow Quin (l) and Ruth Negga as Pegeen Mike (r)
Image caption Robert Sheehan plays Christy Mahon, with Niamh Cusack as Widow Quin (l) and Ruth Negga as Pegeen Mike (r)

As Robert Sheehan takes on one of the best-known roles in Irish drama, he reflects on the preparations for his stage debut, and on life after Misfits.

With a long list of TV and film credits to his name, Robert Sheehan is making his first professional stage appearance in JM Synge's comic masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World.

The 23-year-old star of TV superhero comedy Misfits, who quit the hit E4 show in April, is taking on the role of Christy Mahon.

Mahon is a young man who takes refuge in a pub in a small village in County Mayo, and claims that he has killed his violent father.

Having beguiled the locals - especially the Widow Quin (Niamh Cusack) and landlord's daughter Pegeen (Ruth Negga) - with his tall stories, he achieves the status of a local hero.

"In the history of Irish theatre this is epic," says Sheehan of his new role at London's Old Vic. "This is what Macbeth or Hamlet is for a young English actor.

"It's not to the same scale and length as Hamlet but as regards the language it is completely unique, so I would make that comparison."

Playboy premiered at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1907, but caused riots during its opening run after some of the audience objected to what they perceived as negative stereotypes.

Image caption In rehearsal: Playboy is Robert Sheehan's stage debut

The play was at the Old Vic in 1975 with Stephen Rea as Christy. It was last staged in London in 2001 at the National Theatre.

Sheehan admits that Synge's rich musical language was one of things that attracted him to the role, but had been tough to conquer.

"The whole play is like a song," he says, when we meet at the Old Vic at the end of rehearsals under the direction of John Crowley.

'Confident peacock'

"There was a week or two when I was feeling quite distraught and exhausted and doubtful, but now it's shaping up nicely."

The important thing, Sheehan adds, is to show the magnificent arc that the character goes through.

"Christy starts out as a terrified, peevish young man who has lived under the oppression of his drunken, insane father, and through the admiration of others he becomes this strong, confident peacock of a man."

Sheehan first saw the play as a teenager in Dublin. "A lot of it went over my head. It's no criticism of the production. It was my lack of attention span."

By coincidence, the actor playing Christy had been Sheehan's chaperone on his first feature film Song for a Raggy Boy in 2003. Sheehan was 14 when he won the role after his mother spotted an advert for an open audition.

Sheehan went on to appear in movies Cherrybomb, Killing Bono and Season of the Witch, with Nicolas Cage.

Image caption Robert Sheehan (centre) with the Bafta-winning Misfits cast

His TV credits include RTE's Love/Hate and the Red Riding Trilogy, but he is best known for his role as Nathan in Misfits.

Nathan's exit from the show was marked last week in an online mini-episode called Vegas Baby!

So does Sheehan miss his motormouthed superhero alter-ego?

"Once they started filming series three earlier this year I did feel a bit melancholic and left out of the old gang, because we had some great times on that job."

He admits that even though Misfits won a Bafta in 2010, he still "felt like a tourist" at the 2011 Baftas where he had a nomination for best supporting actor.

"It's quite a surreal show. You find yourself swanning about with everyone who's been TV in the last five years," he laughs.

"Everybody gets decked out and tries to behave themselves until about two o'clock in the morning when it gets all a bit debauched!"

But how much difference does a Bafta nomination make?

"I will tell you this," he confides. "On the same day that I got nominated for a Bafta I got offered three or four jobs.

"So I think it does make a difference, and it's good these things have influence or they are meaningless, so it's lovely to have been included."

The Playboy of the Western World is at The Old Vic, London SE1, from 17 September - 26 November.

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