The Young Vic recently revived its hit production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leennane, in which a grievously put-upon adult daughter finally snaps, hitting her mother over the head with fatal results. Now, just down the street at the Old Vic, JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World is being revived, in which a young man arrives in another Irish rural town seeking refuge after hitting his father over the head, and telling the locals that he’d killed him.
He is instantly elevated to celebrity status, around whom the women folk cluster for his attentions. It’s one way to get ahead - at least until dad arrives in pursuit of his son, his head still heavily bandaged, but very much alive.
McDonagh was clearly influenced by Synge, both of them giving poetic expression to rural desperation and longing. Many plays are called riotous, but Synge’s actually was - its opening at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1907 created riots. The original audience did not like the mirror that was being held up to their own Ireland.
But John Crowley’s new production at the Old Vic is indulgent rather than gritty, picturesque rather than dramatic. Christy Mahon may find himself branded with hot peat, but this staging of Synge isn’t otherwise exactly singeing. Partly it’s a problem of casting. The slight but lanky, mop-haired Robert Sheehan turns the putative playboy into more of a simpleton than a manipulator, and it also becomes impossible to believe that either the publican’s daughter (a feisty Ruth Negga) or Widow Quin (Niamh Cusack, whose sister Sorcha played the role in the last National Theatre production in 2001) are put under his spell.
Scott Pask’s set, which sets the pub on a massive revolve so that it can spin around to reveal the full exterior as well, is emblematic of a production that is as much about show as it is about telling the story.