Synge’s play was first staged in an Ireland under British rule. Oonagh Murphy’s intriguing new production reminds us of that fact, by moving the action into Ulster.
Which side of the border is never explicit, but the implications are clear, as the shadows of political violence and modern-day economic deprivation loom.
Synge’s shebeen is here a 1980s bar, designed as a hymn to grime, formica and discomfort by Molly Ó Cathain. Above, cell-like, floats Pegeen Mike’s room. At the bar, we find Pegeen and the other villagers, variously bursting against, or drinking to forget, their narrow, constricted lives.
Murphy is keen to foreground the play’s women. Their yearning for the real, for the elsewhere, finds its locus in Christy Mahon and his tale of loy-wielding patricide. His glamour soon draws in the Widow Quinn, in a commanding performance by Aoibheann McCann. She’s all bouffant hair, tight jeans and confident sexuality. And not taken in at all by Michael Shea’s whimpering weakling Christy, but certain she has a use for him, nonetheless.
Pegeen herself, played by Eloise Stevenson, is, like the Widow Quinn, a dominant figure. “A strange man is a marvel, with his mighty talk,” she says, but it’s hard to believe her, faced with this gangly wimp of a playboy. If the intention is to highlight a willing suspension of disbelief, or readiness to hero worship, among the desperate, it comes at a cost to the play’s dramatic momentum. A final feminist flourish, where Pegeen’s “wild lamentations” become snark, fits Murphy’s worthwhile thesis, but strains the play’s logic to breaking point.
Compensation does come in the shape of McCann’s performance, and also from the excellent Frankie McCafferty as Old Mahon. His takedown of Christy is worth the admission alone. But it’s not enough to avoid a certain hollowing out. Meanwhile, the play’s Synge-song language is not an ideal fit for the no-nonsense Northern accents.
Murphy’s choices do, however, bear fruit. She cocks a delightful snook at the riots that greeted the original Abbey Theatre performances. This time, it’s Christy Mahon who ends up standing there in his “shift itself.”
There is real edge, too, in the climactic scene, when mere talk of violence meets the “dirty deed” of the thing itself. Communities should beware stoking the spectre of physical force. It was a perceptive insight of Synge’s, as subsequent years would show. In our moment of dissident threat and Brexit, it bears repeating.