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It is a dark winter night in a remote corner of County Mayo. Local
publican Michael James Flaherty, his daughter, Pegeen Mike, her intended groom-to-be,
Shawn Keogh, and several of her fathers cronies are greeted by a nervous young man
in ragged clothes shuffling in seeking warmth and porter. His name is Christy Mahon and,
after some prodding from the assembly, he reveals that he is on the run and guilty of a
terrible crime - the murder of his father. Suddenly life in rural Ireland doesnt
seem so predictable anymore. The stolid, stifling world seems full of possibilities. If a
son can kill his father, who knows what might happen?
The current Druid production of The Playboy of the Western World has been much anticipated. It is the first in a proposed two-year project to stage all seven of Synges plays. Tony award-winner Garry Hynes is currently the most important director in Irish theatre, and though there may be some slippery semantics in Patrick Lonergans program note that "Synge is now regarded by many as the greatest dramatist that Ireland has yet produced", certainly Synges name is known worldwide, usually with the title of this play attached.
In itself it is a strong production, very much in keeping with recent Druid efforts. Francis OConnors typically expressive set combines the naturalistic with the abstract, assisted in no small part by Davy Cunninghams lighting. Initially dimly lit like the actual interior of a country cottage at the turn of the century, the space eventually becomes cast in hues of cadaverous green and fiery orange which subtly but significantly affect the tone. Hynes direction is lively as ever, making excellent use of the space and drawing on David Bolgers movement direction to expand on the expressivity of spoken language. The physicality of the production becomes more pronounced as it goes, culminating in a final act which frequently borders on slapstick comedy with all of the leaping and tumbling which goes on.
The production trades partly on the star casting of rising star Cillian Murphy (who debuted on stage with Disco Pigs in 1997 and has since gone on to appear in films including 28 Days Later, Intermission, and Cold Mountain), and his performance is very good. Extremely precise in his movements, demonstrating a believable progression from uncertainty to arrogance to despair and disdain, his Christy works nicely within the bounds of the production. It is not the stand-out turn though. These recent Druid productions have tended to explore the space between naturalism and absurdity, resulting in showstealing characterizations which often threaten to topple into farce, but somehow never do. This time it is Aisling OSullivan (Crestfall) whose performance lingers in the memory. Her vocal reading of Widow Quinn revels in incongruity. She veers from condescension to intimidation in seconds, registering contempt, bitterness, desire, determination, and finally sadness in a piece of acting which brings the Druid aesthetic fully to bear on Synge.
Not all of the performances are this good. Anne-Marie Duff is not as effective a Pegeen Mike, often barreling through her dialogue so quickly that it is difficult for her to register much emotion. Gary Lydon takes his portrayal of Shawn Keoghs cowardice to excessively clownish levels, weakening the satire while playing up the farce. Both actors have their good moments, especially Duff, but somehow these two particular characterizations seem most adrift relative to the others. Support from Eamon Morrissey and Frank OSullivan is good, and David Pearse and Chris ODowd have fun as Michael James perennial hangers-on, here given the physical deportment of Gargantua and Pantagruel (ODowd towering and lurching, Pearse squat and agile).
Curiously, this is not an exciting production - not in the sense that Sive and Sharons Grave were. There is no thrill of rediscovery here, no sense that Druid have found new contours in Synge which help to appreciate the play more fully. Blue Raincoats Peacock production of 2001 had that kind of energy to it, and though this immaculately presented and always engaging Druid production is certainly well worth seeing, there is no challenge. The very sharpness and decorative perfection of the production makes The Playboy of the Western World seem considerably less full of possibility than it might, which is an intriguing but vaguely depressing paradox given the major theme of the play.
Dublin, February 25, 2003 - Harvey O'Brien