Andrew Bennett, Derbhle Crotty, Clare Dunne, Andy Kellegher, Aidan Kelly, Marcus Lamb, Aaron Monaghan, Christiane O’Mahony, John Olohan, Gemma Reeves & Seona Tully
It’s remembered as the play that sparked a riot.
On its premiere in 1907 the audience of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre reacted wildly to JM Synge’s portrayal of the Irish rural poor in his story of an errant young man who charms a coastal village with boasts of how he’s murdered his father.
There’s little danger of this happening among Richmond’s retirees or indeed in forthcoming shows in Salford, Liverpool or Cardiff.
But the blacker shades of Synge’s comic masterpiece have certainly been brought to the fore in this near faultless production from Galway’s Druid theatre company.
The ultra rustic set design from Francis O’Connor sets the tone. Flaherty’s dingy, high-walled tavern is home to the elderly Michael (John Olohan), his barmaid daughter Pegeen (Clare Dunne) and a clutch of poteen-soaked locals who all latch onto Christie Mahon’s (Aaron Monaghan) garrulous tales of slaying his bullying father with unsettling relish.
The excellent Monaghan may be a particularly un-pinup like Playboy especially from a company who’ve previously had Cork heartthrob Cillian Murphy in the same role but this only serves to heighten the power of his words and the drabness of the lives of the villagers. Most notably, the ever more smitten Pegeen, who seeks an escape from her feeble suitor Shawn Keogh (a marvelously pathetic Marcus Lamb), and man-eater Widow Quinn (an unsettling Derbhle Crott).
Though this is no dour homage even if the clichd musical interludes (tin whistles and uilleann pipes on keyboards) suggest otherwise. The cast work hard to draw out the numerous comic moments, some of them even verging on the slapstick. In particular, the three immature village girls who cackle and skip excitedly around the murdering ‘curiosity man’ employed by Pegeen as pot boy.
But director Garry Hynes’s nuanced take on Synge’s masterful script satisfies the heart and the head as well as the funny bones, especially in the latter stages when Christie’s past catches up with him, forcing Pegeen to reconsider their romance. It’s therefore not surprising to learn that Hynes has directed several productions of Playboy (even set designing and acting a small part in an early one) since co-founding Druid in 1975. Little wonder, then, why some have labeled Druid’s productions of the play as ‘definitive’.
Whether such a claim can be entertained is of course not really in the spirit of modern theatre criticism, save to say that this is a superior revival reminding us of a still vital play. Though if anyone can boast of having a better understanding than most of the work of this influential but oft-overlooked playwright, it’s Druid. From 2005-06 the company staged all six of Synge’s plays in one day under the title DruidSynge in Galway, Edinburgh and various US cities.
But that’s not to say they’re stuck in the past. The Galway company have regularly premiered plays by leading Irish writers, including Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, 1996, among others) and Enda Walsh (The Walworth Farce, 2007), two writers whose warped takes on the Irish experience owe more than a debt to Synge even if they’ll probably never start a riot.