The Playboy of the Western World, Old Vic, London

Dynasty: Niamh Cusack

John Millington Synge wrote his rural Irish characters, such as the Mayo villagers here, with a keen ear for Gaelic-based locutions allied to a heightened sense of poeticism that blended words and phrases from various local idioms with flourishes of his own invention. But he also wrote with vigour. The Playboy Of The Western World was always partly a satire, even on its infamously riotous Dublin premiere in 1907; indeed, it was the satire that caused the riot. The combination of this exaggerated, self-conscious language and the baser notion of the villagers lionising young Christy Mahon for having apparently killed his father with a blow from a spade was felt as an affront to Irishness during an upswing of nationalism, and it was felt so because it was portrayed with vitality.

This vitality was ably captured in the Galway-based Druid company’s revival, which toured Britain a couple of years ago, and it is what is far more often wanting in the present Old Vic production. Nor is this a matter of an English theatrical sensibility approaching such folksy material with too much reverence. Director John Crowley is Irish, as are the vast majority of the actors, among them a scion of the Cusack dynasty and veteran character actor James Greene.

Yet, for much of the time, the cast catch the flights of Synge’s dramatic language but fail to keep their feet on the ground. Ruth Negga is a fine actress but as shebeen barmaid Pegeen Mike she at times verges on the ethereal. (Even the word “shebeen” is pronounced with exaggeration, as if it were a feminine vegetable.) Robert Sheehan, in his stage debut as Christy, similarly fails to animate his character’s amazement at finding his fortunes so reversed, and Niamh Cusack as the widow Quinn makes her every line sound serpentine in its insinuations. The most authentic verbal energy comes from Gary Lydon as Christy’s father, not dead but raging at the dunt his son gave him on the head.

Philip Chevron’s inter-scene music performed by the cast also shows verve, as befits a stalwart of the Pogues, but it feels bolted on. Likewise, Scott Pask’s complex design seems rooted in a desire to revolve at various points rather than a sense of how it can serve the action. It is a clear production but leaves one mystified as to what it was that so fired the Abbey Theatre audience a century ago.

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