"Playboy of the Western World"
(The Abbey Theatre, Dublin, Ireland)
Shubert Theatre, New Haven
Stamford Center for the Arts, Stamford
It is wise to approach J. M. Synge's "Playboy of the Western World" with a careful advance reading, or at least a firm knowledge of the play. This production of the famed Abbey Theatre from Dublin, which begins its national tour in New Haven and goes on to Stamford, is fraught with Gallic accents. This may well be an attempt for the players to recreate the world of Synge-in this case a remote Irish village at the turn of the last century. But ninety percent of the dialogue will be unintelligible to American theatergoers.
This is most unfortunate, because "Playboy of the Western World" is one of Ireland's great dramas. And this particular "Playboy" is indeed a brilliant production. Under the direction of Ben Barnes, the Abbey's Artistic Director, the piece combines a gritty reality with a lyrical dream-like quality. It's a hard-drinking primitive world, but its primitive people speak in sheer poetry. No surprise, given the Irish gift for language.
Barnes opens and closes the play with a narrator, a figure dressed in derby, suspenders and striped underwear-a kind of clown figure-who recites Synge's own preface and opens the story with a clash of cymbals. And his scenes are strikingly played out against the backdrop of a harshly-lit outdoor world which symbolizes the remoteness of the locale.
Yet the play has an eerily modern theme- the seduction of the public by glamorous figures, however onerous their crimes. In fact, the more awful the crime, the more appealing its perpetrator. We need only think back to the musical "Chicago," and, in real life, the O.J. Simpson trial.
As to "Playboy": a stranger-one Christy Mahon--staggers into the local pub of a small village on the Irish west coast, County Mayo. He is muddy, unkempt, exhausted. But when the local populace learns that he is on the run and that he has murdered his father, he becomes an icon. The girls adore him, the men fear him. In fact, nothing this exciting has hit the community in centuries, it would seem. And in a fine example of character development, Synge turns a wimp into a swaggering, self-assured braggart. Christy is indeed the Playboy of the Western World. It is an unsentimental look at a simple primitive world, where passions flair in a moment, and compassion is in short supply.
As the story builds in intensity, Barnes uses wonderfully dramatic devices to play out the scenes. When the villagers turn against Christy, for instance, they are silhouetted across the top of the stage, a taunting chorus hanging over a ledge. It is impossible to single out star players in this cast of 12, as each is top-notch in his role.
In all, a memorable Abbey production. If only they had provided sub-titles!
-- Irene Backalenick
Oct. 10, 2004