When The Playboy of the Western World opened at the Abbey Theatre in 1907, the divide between play and reality was so fine that riots kicked off. The audience, insulted by what they saw as JM Synge’s damning take on Irish sensibilities, stormed the stage. Yet, whilst John Crowley’s Old Vic adaptation is assured and entertaining, it’s certainly never dangerous.
In fact, there’s something slightly showy about this solid revival. We kick off with a musical ditty from the townsfolk of County Mayo, in western Ireland. Some singers are dressed in drag and all flash ironic smiles, as they croon about the story to come. After this, comes a rather proud swivel of the stage, as we move from the back of a brick house to its heart inside. It is a swaggery stage device, establishing this as a distant, almost filmic production.
This distance is enhanced by some near-impenetrable Irish accents: perhaps over-compensating, the cast ladle their accents on thick and they are so convincing that they’re hard to understand, and Synge’s delicate and complex poetry is often swallowed. Lots of the characters are equally over-emphatic. In particular, young Pegeen’s ill-suited fiancé, Shawn Keogh (Kevin Trainor), is peculiarly camp. Yes, this approach injects energy into his scenes, but it also means the relationship between Pegeen (Ruth Negga) and Shawn feels brazenly perfunctory.
This broad performance style applies to much of the ensemble cast, making for funny but stubbornly flippant scenes. When young Christopher Mahon crawls into County Mayo and brags about his dastardly deed - ‘I destroyed my da!’ - the local lasses, enthralled by his reckless and brave behaviour, treat him like a movie star. They cluster outside his room, screaming teenagers waiting for an autograph. These ensemble scenes feel like set-pieces - well choreographed but over-constructed.
The one actress who really thickens things up is Niamh Cusack, playing the scheming widow Quin. Cusack’s performances are always so open, yet complex. She allows us to see her character for what it really is: a clever and conniving trader, always out for herself. Although she makes a play for the gangly Christopher Mahon (Robert Sheehan), she never fawns over him. And, when she talks of destroying her husband and burying her husband, it almost feels like a boast.
The central lovers, too, have a subtle and delicate dynamic. Sheehan, with a chest free of hair and a body that seems to big for him, reminds one of Bambi, constantly skidding across ice. He has as little control over his body as he does over his character, which the locals re-model with relish. When Sheehan’s Chistopher and Negga’s Pegeen seduce each other, they seem less like adults anticipating sex and more like kids eagerly awaiting Christmas. Their naked naivety adds a much-needed frailty to an otherwise rough-edged and slightly remote production.