20 November 2004: Synge, The Playboy of the Western World

Abbey Theatre at the Wilbur Theatre, Boston. Directed by Ben Barnes, Artistic director of the Abbey

A crowded house for this Abbey Theatre production, on tour in the United States on the centenary of its founding in 1904. Barnes has given us a spirited, well-rehearsed reading of Synge’s now-classic play, but his approach seems partly misconceived. The setting is an unusually spare rendering of Synge’s County Mayo shebeen, or country public house. Before the play begins, as the lights come up we see two very long walls stretching far up stage. A ”Bellman” comes on, in a kind of busker costume and bowler hat; with an overlong, practiced stride he comes down stage, stops, and recites Synge’s preface to the first edition of the play, including the signature and the date. Why this? I wondered. Is there an attempt to historicize going on, I asked myself. What is the intention, to distance the play from its Irish audience? As I mused, the Bellman took two clappers from their holsters at his side, and clapped the play into beginning. Immediately, the walls began to close in and come together in the center of the stage to form the upper walls of the shebeen; a glass-less window came into place by the sturdy wooden door of the building. These walls would be opened and closed at the beginning and end of each act, and opened again for a mimed sequence representing the exploits of Christy in the sports and games conducted on the beach in Act III. And in each instance the Bellman would initiate the action; for example, at the beginning of Act II, with the walls open, he brings on a stand and wash bowl for Christy to use to clean the travel dust and grime from his face.

These were good, effective ideas for encapsulating and isolating the action of the play. But I thought the dramatization of the sports contest, a narration with crowd sounds offstage in Synge’s script, served no useful purpose and only seemed to delay the action. And in part of the concluding sequence, instead of bringing the townspeople on stage, Barnes had them climb tall ladders and peer over the tops of the walls left and right (I should’ve mentioned that the tops of these thick walls were festooned with beer bottles and spirits bottles). Again, it was not clear why this was a choice superior to just having the village inhabitants come on stage.

My suspicion is that Barnes faced a self-imposed dilemma over what to do with the unremitting realism of Synge’s style. A fresh approach, perhaps, was called for as Synge’s play passes into the second century of its existence and its secure place in the history of Irish theatre and perhaps its undislodgeable position in the curriculum of Irish schools. As the play commenced I sensed that a certain freshness was emergent in the slow pace of the dialogue, with thought­ful pauses in the midst of sentences intended, it seemed, to make it clear that these words were the product of new, spontaneous thought. But the impression did not persist. Barnes was fighting against something, all right, but it wasn’t quite clear what that was. And by the time we got to Act III it was almost as if another, more auteur-like style had taken over. Instead of Christy being tied up with ordinary rope, he was encircled — by Pegeen Mike herself — with a broad leather girdle to which four long ropes were attached, and at the other ends of them Shawn Keogh, Michael James, Jimmy Farrell, and Philly Cullen. After already having seen the acrobatics of Christy and Company, bathed in greenish and reddish light against the huge white translucent wall upstage, visible whenever the walls of the shebeen were left open, it seemed we were no longer on the coast of County Mayo in 1907 but stranded somewhere in an avant-garde Neverland imported from Holland or somewhere else in Nouvelle Europa. Barnes places himself in the company of star directors who impose a mark-making concept on all they do; it is a point of professional self-justification for them to subordinate the play and any meanings it may generate — and any concern with essential human issues — to the acting out of this imposition. Barnes doesn’t go nearly so far toward extremes as some — the play is still quite recognizable, and the acting is uniformly good — and yet the third act really gets out of hand, stylistically speaking, and leaves us wondering what all this is for, if not to carry out Synge’s probing, razor-sharp satire, bringing the middle-class Dublin audience into pointed, embarrassed collision with a profoundly unideal­ized peasantry to which they bear an uncomfortably close resemblance.

I lost much of that, in the course of the play. Compounding my difficulties was the problem of trying to understand what the actors were saying. Was it my position in the fourth row of the dress circle that made consonants so hard to distinguish? Is the Wilbur an acoustically problematic place, like the back of the Huntington orchestra? In any case, it was a good thing I knew the play so well. As it was, I missed a great deal of the details. Ironically, that gave me time to lament the attempt to cloak Synge’s classic of realism in the self-conscious trappings of postmodern staging.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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