Playboy of the Western World
Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin
Christy Mahon, the alleged father slayer of JM Synge’s enduring play, has been many things over the years. Since his debut, in 1907, as the accidental instigator of the Abbey riots, he has become steadily more predictable: an endlessly revived figure generally inflaming only anxious Leaving Cert students.
That predictability has made it possible – even essential – for companies such as Druid, Pan Pan and the Abbey to imagine him anew: an unromantic figure of modern allegory, a Nigerian asylum seeker in gangland Dublin, or a Chinese fugitive in urban Beijing.
Introducing us to a sparse but spotless Mayo shebeen with a blast of tourist-friendly diddly-aye trad music, the new Smock Alley Players production is not particularly interested in reappraising a classic. If anything, every gesture of its staging seems intent on amplifying Synge’s comedy while sanding down its rougher edges.
Amanda Coakley’s radiant Pegeen Mike tends briskly to her duties, craving rough excitement while taunting her skittering, priest-fearing fiancé Shawn Keogh (Simon Stewart), and so the production begins as it means to continue: it is ceaselessly lively.
Working with a predominantly young cast, director Patrick Sutton emphasises broad physicality: arms akimbo, Andy Crowe’s surprisingly fresh-faced Widow Quinn is more vampish than manipulative and nobody delivers their lines from the floor if they can first hop onto a table. But the production surges as breathlessly over Synge’s language.
Consequently we never see the tedium that fosters outlandish gossip or promotes a well-told story of patricide into an act of heroism. It also makes it hard for Muiris Crowley’s Christy to effect his necessary transformation. Spry and athletic, he is rarely allowed to be timid: even hiding behind a door from Old Mahon (Donal Hurley) involves an elaborate leaping stunt.
Such attention to energetic display yields several enjoyably comic moments – a coin sliding along the bar in exchange for a drink, the village girls bouncing into Christy’s vacant bed – but hardly a moment to reflect. When the town finally turns on Christy it is so abrupt as to forfeit consequence. Synge ingeniously traced, as Pegeen puts it, the “great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed”. Whatever approach a production takes, it needs to mind the gap.