Dublin’s battle of the “Playboys” has finally been waged, and the outcome is hardly a surprise: Garry Hynes’ superb staging, first seen four months ago, could beat up this bizarre postmodern pastiche with one arm tied behind its back.
Abbey artistic director Ben Barnes first mooted the idea of a mainstage production of Synge’s great play 18 months ago, promising a traditional take on the material.
This production was then pushed back into the Abbey’s 2004 100th0anniversary season, presumably to exploit the touring possibilities that the celebratory centenary year offered. This “Playboy” is undertaking the most elaborate tour in recent Irish theater history, playing eight venues in Ireland and Northern Ireland before heading out to the U.S. for a six-city October-December tour (it plays Gotham’s Skirball Center Oct. 26-31).
In the meantime, Hynes offered up her production for Druid Theater Co., a beautifully pitched exercise in heightened realism starring Cillian Murphy, which now may be West End-bound.
Since he took over the Abbey in 2000, Barnes has trafficked almost exclusively in straightforward, monumental productions of well-known texts; one has to assume it was Hynes’ choice to play her “Playboy” relatively straight that sent him off his stated course here and onto an experimental tack.
But what are his directorial interventions supposed to mean? The visual impact of the production’s first moments are certainly striking: The lights come up on Guido Tondino’s set of two tall stuccoed walls standing perpendicular to the audience on an otherwise bare stage. A man (Simon O’Gorman) in a red-and-white-striped union suit and bowler hat marches on in ritual fashion, strikes a pose centerstage and recites most of Synge’s celebrated preface to “Playboy,” which refers to art as collaboration and advocates writing that captures the “fiery and magnificent” Irish popular imagination. The exaggerated speech and outrageous actions we see on stage, Synge argues, are no more than a reflection of the “superb and wild” reality he observed in the west-of-Ireland travels that led to his writing the play.
That Barnes chooses these words to introduce his production, and that O’Gorman delivers them without apparent irony, would seem to indicate Barnes is endorsing Synge’s argument — that we are meant to view what we are seeing as a reflection of reality. But every other aspect of O’Gorman’s onstage presence indicates he is intended as some kind of controlling, Brechtian narrator, from his clownish attire to the fact that he cues the start of the action by clanging a big set of cymbals and handing key props to the actors before they start speaking. As he does so, the walls move silently inward to create the back wall of Michael James Flaherty’s shebeen, literally framing what happens on stage.
This results in totally mixed messages: Are we meant to accept Synge’s views as expressed in the preface, or is the production making light of them? Is Barnes attempting to bolster the play’s status as a classic, or is he querying its continuing relevance in a contemporary, globalized Ireland?
The rest of the production adds further confusion. Monica Frawley’s hodgepodge costumes indicate we’re in the 1940s or ’50s, though the odd piece — Michael James’ bright yellow fishing vest, for example — seems more contemporary. The actors deliver the material in a way that signals its familiarity, striking poses and staying there, almost seeming to sleepwalk at times — a torpor settles over most of the dialogue-driven passages.
Tom Vaughan Lawlor, a talented but mannered young actor just a year out of RADA, needs to be watched much more closely for the messages that his floaty-handed demeanor sends: His Christy Mahon comes across as so fey, and Olwen Fouere’s cowgirl Widow Quin so butch, that one wondered briefly if Barnes was queering the play.
The meta-theatrical touches established in the early moments continue in a series of dumb-show, slo-mo action scenes against an illuminated back white wall that echo recent productions by Theatre de Complicite. Christy’s final confrontation at the center of a tug-of-war with the other four male characters is straight out of Niall Henry’s excellent physical-theater “Playboy” on the Abbey’s second stage three years ago.
In short, there is a lot going on here, but none of it adds up to a consistent or legible interpretation of the play. It feels like an accumulation of impressions and impulses that foils the attempts of even those familiar with the material to make sense of it. Was this really the best choice to make for a production that was predestined to tour so extensively?