Tom Vaughan Lawlor inThe Playboy of the Western World(Photo © Tom Lawlor)
Tom Vaughan Lawlor in
The Playboy of the Western World
(Photo © Tom Lawlor)
Many plays have been called a riot, but very few have started one. John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World caused quite a demonstration when it opened at Dublin's three-year-old Abbey Theatre on January 26, 1907. In a telegram that Lady Gregory, who co-founded the Abbey with W.B. Yeats, sent her partner after the premiere's second act, she wrote, "Play broke up in disorder at the word shift." Some say it was more, citing Synge's cynical depiction of certain Irish types. (The play takes place in a rundown County Mayo shebeen.) Others felt that the specter of a supposedly dead man graphically revealing his wounds was the problem.

Often, great significance attaches to works of art that provoke calls of "Kill the author!" and require the deployment of 500 policemen to contain a furious crowd. These are taken to be indices of a new classic, which The Playboy of the Western World is. As the piece becomes an older chapter in dramatic literature, the need arises to remind audiences this was once something worth rioting over. Ben Barnes, retiring as the Abbey's artistic director in 2005, has felt that obligation. In mounting Synge's most famous work for the theater's centenary year, he wasn't going to offer any old version. His production hasn't triggered any riots so far but it has the potential to get under an audience's collective skin.

Barnes lets the story stand. Pegeen Mike (Cathy Belton), the publican's ferocious daughter, isn't exactly refusing to marry Shawn Keogh (Andrew Bennett), the timid local who's pursuing her; but her head is turned when Christy Mahon (Tom Vaughan Lawlor) lurches through the public-house door and confesses that he's on the run after slaying his father with a spade. Aware of the intoxicating effect of his homicidal tale on Pegeen, the predatory widow Quin (Olwen Fouere) and three giddy colleens (played by Ciara O'Callaghan, Katy Davis, Kelly Campbell), the frightened fugitive leaps at the chance to act the playboy. But in wooing Pegeen successfully, he sees his fickle fortunes reverse when old man Mahon (Maeliosa Stafford) arrives, head bloodied but vengeful inclinations intact. Christy, fearing that he's lost Pegeen, assails his father and again tries to kill the geezer while Pegeen's dad Michael James (John Olohan) and cronies Jimmy Farrell (David Herlihy) and Philly Cullen (Brendan Conroy) look on. Eventually, Christy gets what he wants -- but it isn't Pegeen Mike.

What outraged the Dubliners -- and American audiences when Playboy toured here in 1911-2 -- was the unflatteringly realistic portrait of the Irish lower class. Even though Synge laces high-flown and lyrical rhetoric throughout the play's three acts (here performed with a break between acts two and three), it's hard-nosed yet funny realism that the dramatist is after. This is one of those masterworks in which tragedy and comedy are inextricably intertwined. When Christy Mahon's ultimate triumph is counterbalanced by Pegeen Mike's loss, it's Synge saying that this is the way of the world.

Looking around for riot potential, Barnes decided to up-end expectations. Ninety-seven years after the play bowed, audiences take Synge's realism for granted. Okay, then don't give it to 'em. Instead, Barnes has stylized the play, overlaying 20th-century theatrical influences upon it. He lets the audience know what he's up to immediately by introducing a character that Synge overlooked: a bellman (Simon O'Gorman) who enters upstage like a Doctor Seuss-meets-Samuel Beckett figure in red-and-white-striped shirt and other clown-like accessories. Reciting passages from Synge's preface to the play, the bellman grandly strikes cymbals to bring on the play and to bring in the walls of Guido Tondino's stylized shebeen. Till that moment, the walls had faced each other from opposite sides of the desolate stage; now, they enclose the center space. (The shebeen's mottled green walls look as if acid has been splashed across them, and Monica Frawley's costumes appear stressed from years of wear and washing.)

Tom Vaughan Lawlor, John Olohan, and Cathy Belton inThe Playboy of the Western World(Photo © Tom Lawlor)
Tom Vaughan Lawlor, John Olohan, and Cathy Belton in
The Playboy of the Western World
(Photo © Tom Lawlor)
Barnes repeatedly separates the walls to stage some of the scenes as they've never been staged before, and he finds numerous occasions to bring the bellman back. He attempts a couple of tours de force with his partially silhouetted versions of the race that Christy runs and with Christy's capture after he's attacked Da a second time. The director also likes the idea of having the players climb ladders to peek over the walls at action inside the pub.

The verdict on all this manipulation? It doesn't refresh a play that needs no refreshing if the lines are simply honored, especially with a cast this prepared to find the balance between insinuating poetry and brutal prose. Belton's Pegeen Mike is a tough young woman, as untamed as her cascading dirty-blonde tresses, and Lawlor's skinny Christy is a Mahon of few charms. (Some will say too few.) They invigorate the play, emerging as hotties in the torrid mid-play love scene; they only seem embarrassed during those stylized sequences and the slo-mo father-son battle. Olohan, Fouere, and Stafford provide enough bite for their lines. All the actors do, minimizing the need to reconstruct Synge for moderns. Barnes' liberties are not worth rioting over, but neither are they worth Synge-ing about.