JM Synge's masterpiece no longer has the power to cause riots (as it did in its 1907 premiere), but it remains an extremely powerful depiction of rural Ireland and the innate urge to hero-worship an outlaw. We see it even now in the popularity of East End gangsters; how resonant must it have been to a rural Ireland, subject to the law of an alien country?
Christy Mahon fetches up at a rural community, fleeing from justice after killing his father. Instead of betraying him, the villagers revere him, and the innkeeper's daughter, Pegeen Mike, falls in love with him, believing he's more of a match than her timorous cousin Sean to whom she's betrothed. But it all goes wrong for Christy when his allegedly dead father turns up at the village.
This outing of the play starts promisingly enough. Robert Jones's set is a superb evocation of a west Irish shebeen, complete with smoky chimney - you can almost smell the peat burning. However, the trouble with Fiona Buffini's production is that there's almost too much reverence for Synge's text and, at the same time, little appreciation of the politics.
There's little doubt that the actors bring out the poetry of the text, but Buffini's direction feels rather stately. It's an eerie experience watching this exceedingly funny play with virtually no audience laughter. That said, the production does - finally - come to life in the final act, when Christy finally learns how to stand up to dad.
It also helps that there are some strong performances to savour. Derbhle Crotty's Pegeen Mike steals most of the acting honours. Hers is a tender Pegeen, yearning to escape from what she perceives will be a loveless marriage; she can scarcely bring herself to touch Christy when he declares his love for her. And there's real anguish in her cry at the end when she realises she's let her chance of happiness slip through her fingers.
Crotty is well supported by Patrick O'Kane's Christy. The contrast between the whimpering traveler and the raging, fearsome, brawling lad that he becomes is a stark one, and O'Kane manages to convey all sides of this complex character.
Almost the equal of these two is Sorcha Cusack's lusty, scheming Widow Quin. This part can easily slip into caricature, but Cusack rescues us from that by presenting all-too human figure. And Paul Hickey cuts an abject figure as Pegeen's intended, Sean.
It would take a director of rare incompetence to ruin this marvelous play completely, and Buffini certainly doesn't fall into that category. However measured, her Playboy of the Western World is certainly worth catching. It's just a pity to consider how, with actors like these, it could have been so much better.