This is certainly the year in which I seem to be encountering classic plays for the first time. The Playboy of the Western World is one such work - a title that has been known to me for a couple of decades but about which I knew precious little.
Druid have long championed the works of JM Synge and now, as part of their on-going relationship with the Oxford Playhouse, have brought their latest revival of this tale of lies and loneliness to tour the UK. Set in a small bar on the Irish coast, this once shocking play is now almost quaint in its portrayal of rural living. The inhabitants are entranced by the arrival of a strange young man who claims to have murdered his father - and set about idealising him as the Playboy. The original production lead to riots on the streets of Dublin - showing just how far society has changed over the past century for now we barely raise an eyebrow at the moral ambiguities exposed by Synge.
Garry Hynes has directed a number of productions of Playboy over the past 25 years and clearly loves the text. The direction is full of delicate touches as well as doses of broad slapstick which kept the audience entertained. From time to time - such as in the sports section, there is a very self-conscious theatricality to the direction which works well in contrast to the naturalism with the rest of the piece.
In one way I applaud the decision not to soften the accents for UK audiences - it gives a real sense of character, place and time. However I did find myself struggling to comprehend a large amount of what was being said. From time to time, I could tune in by closing my eyes but, at others, I just had to let it wash over me. I was not alone in this - a number of audience members were making similar comments both at the interval and as we left the theatre.
Having thoroughly enjoyed his recent performance in The Cripple of Inishmaan for Druid, I was once again very impressed with Aaron Monaghan in the title role. He is able to communicate in a very direct way without having to use anything other than his eyes and yet his use of language is always very telling. It might be that I have just spent a lot of time working on King Lear - but I would urge casting directors to contact him to play Edgar, it would be outstanding.
The other standout performances came from Derbhle Croity as Widow Quinn - she lit up the stage with her energy and wit, and from Marcus Lamb who made much of the timidly loyal Shawn Keogh. The set by Francis O’Connor and lighting by Davy Cunningham work well - never imposing themselves on the audience but always illuminating the action.
Overall, this is clearly a classy production from a company with deep roots in the traditions of Irish theatre both contemporary and classic. I would have liked to have understood more of the text than I did - it would have enriched my understanding and compassion. Nevertheless, I welcome the fact that Druid are building a lasting relationship with the Oxford Playhouse and wider UK audiences and look forward to their return.
Review by Simon Tavener