When J M Synge's The Playboy of the Western World was first staged in 1907 at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, it provoked riots and was denounced as "an unmitigated protracted libel upon Irish peasant men and, worse still, on Irish peasant girlhood". Since then, it has become a well-loved staple of the repertoire, ostensibly superseded in the dangerous iconoclasm stakes by the work of its heirs and beneficiaries such as Martin McDonagh. Can any revival now restore a sense of the play's original outrageousness by releasing, at full blast, its subversive comic brio?
Prefaced by earthy folk songs in each half, John Crowley's lively, captivating production at the Old Vic suggests a partly affirmative answer. I mean it as a sincere compliment to say that, watching it here, I was more than ever struck by the affinities between this play and Gogol's The Government Inspector. Khlestakov, the clerk mistaken for the eponymous official and plied with all manner of bribes, is first cousin to Synge's anti-hero Christy Mahon, the pathetic specimen of a lad who finds himself elevated to the status of sex-object when he shows up at a rural pub and announces that he is on the run after murdering his father. In both plays, their unfamiliar, specious allure goes to the heads of the protagonists, liberating torrents of unwise verbiage. And in both, the community passes judgement on itself in the way it reacts – credulous titillation hypocritically followed by brutal righteousness in the case of Playboy.
Making an impressive stage debut as Christy, the tall, handsome Robert Sheehan is not exactly the unprepossessing runt suggested by the text. But he graduates from hunched-over, gangling gormlessness to experimental swagger with an amusing and touching finesse. Though his handling of Christy's poetic flights is winningly dexterous, you don't yet get the sense of a youth magnetically drunk on his own verbal extravagance. In a cast that has quirky strength in depth, the two leading actresses offer intriguing reappraisals of their roles. Ruth Negga is an unusually steely and self-possessed Pegeen Mike. The performance of the evening, though, is given by Niamh Cusack who, as Widow Quin, is no hatchet-faced bag but a wittily calculating and sexually combative competitor for Christy's charms.
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