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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Playboy of the Western World

. . . maybe all knows a widow woman has buried her children and destroyed her man is a wiser comrade for a young lad than a girl, the like of you, who'd go helter-skeltering after any man would let you a wink upon the road. — Widow Quin
The Playboy of the Western World
Robert Sheehan as Christy and Ruth Negga as Pegeen (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
John Crowley’s exciting production reviving JM Synge’s classic 1907 play The Playboy of the Western World has a modern feel. The characters may not be not quite as Synge described them and some of the poetic language can be heavy going on the modern ear not acquainted with the singing, and sometimes obscure, Irish vernacula, but what we lose in authentic atmosphere, we gain in comedy and sheer entertainment value.

Scott Pask’s design is beautiful: a solid looking stone bothy with a huge smoking chimney, fireplace and a bar to serve the customers of this one room drinking den. As the stage revolves we see washing is hung on the outside to dry. The costumes too are attractive, Victorian prints with bustles, finished off with workmen’s boots for men and women alike, other girls going barefoot.

Ruth Negga plays Pegeen Mike, the daughter of the innkeeper left in charge when the men of the village go to an all night wake. Kevin Trainor is Shawn Keogh her unattractive, but comic would be fiancé until Christopher or Christy Mahon (Robert Sheehan) stumbles into the house, on the run from presumably having killed his father. Interesting like the notoriety of some celebrity culture today, it is his reputation as the murderer of his father which excites the girls of the community who flock to see him. In particular he attracts the attention of the wily Window Quin (Niamh Cusack) who would love to have him for herself but it is Pegeen Mike who finds mutual attraction with the young man.

We are told that in 1907 the actor playing Christy fluffed his line saying he would marry only Pegeen Mike even if offered "a drift of Mayo girls standing in their shifts". This was the reason for Lady Gregory, after attending the first performance, sending a telegram to Yeats saying, "Audience broke up in disorder at the word shift". The actor was meant to say chosen girls not Mayo girls and the residents of Mayo were offended.

The play opens, and again after the interval, with folksong, some bearded men in headscarves making up the female chorus singing first a ballad in Gaelic and later in English. After the interval the men stagger back from the wake and we see at the window, reappearing, the figure of Old Mahon (Gary Lydon) looking for his son and assailant. This production is full of pace and the race is staged with the revolve and the onlookers standing outside craning their necks to see who will win.

The performances are characterful. I might argue that Niamh Cusack’s canny Widow Quin is a tad too glamorous but so too is Christy with his gangly, long limbs, curly hair and wide open eyes although the actor does his utmost to dumb down for this performance. However the widow’s bride price demands for a ton of dung at Michaelmas shriek expediency and make her less romantic than practical.

Niamh Cusack adopts a controlling masculine stance for the widow, leaning backwards and striding across the stage in her heavy boots, with penetrating round dark eyes and the interesting eyebrows of her father, the great Irish actor director Cyril Cusack. I enjoy her performances even more as she reaches middle age. "I’m slow at learning, " says Christy hunched over and bashful and squirming. I love the original stage directions which have him hungrily gnawing at a turnip. You would need to be hungry!

The three main performances are admirable, especially Ruth Negga’s intelligent and beautiful Pegeen, who you cannot fail to respect. Somehow in Irish plays the women characters are so much more interesting than the male ones. This is a play to be studied first and seen later, all the more to enjoy this fine production.

Links to other CurtainUp reviews of The Playboy of the Western World
at the Cottlesoe in 2001
at the Pearl Theater Off-Broadway in 2009
Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge-- musical based on Synge's book- 2009

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The Playboy of the Western World
Written by JM Synge
Directed by John Crowley

Starring: Ruth Negga, Niamh Cusack, Robert Sheehan, Kevin Trainor, Gary Lydon
With: Gwendolen Chatfield, Karen Cogan, John Cormack, Drew Dillon, Christopher Doyle, Diarmuid de Faoite, James Greene, Gráinne Keenan, Frank Laverty, Bronagh Taggart
Designed by Scott Pask
Lighting: Howard Harrison
Music: Philip Chevron
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7628
Booking to 26th November 2011
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 29th September 2011 performance at The Old Vic, Waterloo Road, London SE1 8NB (Rail/Tube:Waterloo)

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