The Playboy of the Western World

Niamh Cusack, Robert Sheehan & Grainne Keenan in the Old Vic production of 'The Playboy of the Western World'. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Niamh Cusack, Robert Sheehan & Grainne Keenan in the Old Vic production of 'The Playboy of the Western World'. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Diarmuid de Faoite, James Greene, Niamh Cusack, Gary Lydon in the Old Vic production of 'The Playboy of the Western World'. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Diarmuid de Faoite, James Greene, Niamh Cusack, Gary Lydon in the Old Vic production of 'The Playboy of the Western World'. Photo: Manuel Harlan

In the middle of the last decade in Ireland, we had the Playboy wars: back-to-back stagings within months, by then-Abbey artistic director Ben Barnes and Druid’s Garry Hynes, of the Synge classic: the former a bizarre stylistic muddle, the latter a consummate slice of heightened realism that successfully launched Druid’s now-storied Synge Cycle. Then we had the global Playboys: at the Abbey, Bisi Adigun and Roddy Doyle’s controversial (yet popular) updating to contemporary Dublin, with Christy as a Nigerian immigrant; and Pan Pan’s production in Mandarin, set in a Beijing whorehouse and premiered in China before playing in Ireland.

Now John Crowley is giving London a showbiz Playboy: arch-traditional in setting and interpretation, but mega in scale and featuring, in Robert Sheehan and Ruth Negga, two rising television stars (The Misfits) with a particular youth appeal. That Crowley and his team totally pull off the caper is a testament to the sureness of his directorial hand, the panache of his designers, and the skill of a superb company of actors and musicians having what appears to be a whale of a time firing Synge-song all the way up to the Old Vic’s second gallery.

Photo: Manuel HarlanPlaying it straight is just about the only choice Crowley could have made in this town and this venue: the play is not particularly familiar (one of my undergraduate students asked me this week if it was written by Martin McDonagh) and the Old Vic is a thousand-seat for-profit venue with a recent track record of celebrity casting. It was nonetheless risky to Irish it up so much as to risk Oirishness, but the integrity of the musical, linguistic, and stylistic choices, and the commitment of the performers to characters’ emotional lives and relationships compels and sustains audience credulity.

The production’s first moments declare its intent: the company of townspeople (including two male actors in peasant lady drag) line up at the forestage and sing a rousing, defiant ballad, alternating verses as Gaeilge and in English, and accompanying themselves with whistle, guitar, and accordion (The Pogues’ Philip Chevron has composed some excellent new music for the production as well as arranging existing melodies). The performers move away, and the exterior of a stone country house upstage slowly revolves to reveal the shebeen interior, gliding slowly forward. Some may be put off by the disconnect between the rural poverty the play dramatizes and the amount of twenty-first century cash that must have been sunk into this swanky bit of staging kit (designed by Scott Pask), but Crowley uses the revolve to considerable effect: as it turns at each act break, the audience is reminded of the harsh world beyond the Flahertys’ house.

Photo: Manuel HarlanNegga, fearlessly, underlines Pegeen Mike’s toughness and, like the production as a whole, hovers on the edge of caricature with her hands-on-hips delivery, swishing petticoats, and perfectly observed Wesht of Ireland diction. She comes across as just as tough, in her way, as Niamh Cusack’s flame-haired, steely-eyed Widow Quin, and plays her growing attraction to Christy not as girlish capitulation but womanly self-discovery. Sheehan, too, seems almost parodic in his first moments onstage, stooping and cowering. But he wins over the audience as he does the villagers, painting pictures with his hands to illustrate his wild tales. Kevin Trainor’s campy take on Shawn Keogh raises an intriguing suspicion that there may be more than piousness lying behind the delay of his marriage to Pegeen.

It is a jolt to see Frank Laverty and Gary Lydon graduated to senior roles while both are still (just about) playing in the leading man range, but the casting makes credible textual sense and adds power to their scenes. As Laverty plays him, Michael James is no dodderer but a man in full command of his macho, and Lydon’s Old Mahon is genuinely scary and physically more than his weedy son’s match.

Beyond the emotional and physical conviction of the performances, the company speak the text with wonderful comprehension and clarity. The apparently intense focus on clear diction is necessary in order for this unfamiliar dialect to communicate to the whole hall; but it also helps those familiar with the play hear and comprehend it anew.

While the performances are excellent, the true star turn here is Crowley’s, and this provides a welcome opportunity to engage with his maturing vision. London-based Cork native Crowley has never seemed in a hurry, apparently choosing his projects carefully and building a strong reputation on the West End and in New York (pace the recent misstep of McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane) as well as a television and film director. This staging confirms him as one of the major directors of his generation in these islands. One presumes that the major Irish theatrical institutions regularly invite him back, and can only hope that the right project will present itself soon.

Karen Fricker lectures in contemporary theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London and deputy London theatre critic for Variety (US).

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge

17 Sept – 26 Nov, 2011

Produced by The Old Vic
In The Old Vic Theatre

Directed by John Crowley

Sets and Costume Design: Scott Pask

Lighting  Design: Howard Harrison

Music Composition: Philip Chevron

Sound Design: Christopher Shutt

With: Gwendolen Chatfield, John Cormack, Karen Cogan, Niamh Cusack, Drew Dillon, Christopher Doyle, Diarmuid de Faoite, James Greene, Gráinne Keenan, Frank Laverty, Gary Lydon, Ruth Negga, Robert Sheehan, Bronagh Taggert, Kevin Trainor.