Set play

30th March 2001 at 01:00
THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD. Royal National Theatre (Cottesloe).

J M Synge's Irish classic seems both fustily folksy and right-up-to-the-minute in Fiona Buffini's production. Pegeen Mike and her father inhabit a shebeen so realistic - down to the water dripping off the thatch beyond the open door and smoke curling through a chimney stack from a real log fire - that you feel you could move in for a heritage holiday.

The stark simplicity of early 20th-century rural life looks deceptively attractive 100 years on. The lighting is all too realistically murky and sometimes the accents, especially in the case of Patrick O'Kane's Christopher Mahon, the playboy himself, almost impenetrable.

On the plus side there is a definite sense of community, with children trailing after their elders and a fine array of rustic characters. If the first half of the production is a little too leisurely in pace, there is some well-choreographed rough-and-tumble after the interval.

The story of a supposed murderer achieving celebrity status rings horribly true for a modern audience. Christy hasn't much to recommend him except that he is a victim who decided to take action in self-defence, but he achieves an instant mock-heroic mythology - until his father (a truly imposing, genuinely frightening James Ellis) rises from his "deathbed" ditch with a bandage round his head. There were suggestions in the early days that Chrity represented a plucky Irish revolt against paternalistic colonialism.

Christy retains his glamour when he determines to make reality match his description of his action, but there is a gap between a violent story told and a violent deed observed. The crowd begins to turn against him.

For Pegeen, the second failure, coupled with a stretching of the truth, is just too much. Normal, well-regulated, boring life will be resumed forthwith. Derbhle Crotty gives Pegeen an air of sadness. She is not simply a strident harridan, but an intelligent young woman trapped in the sticks with no hope of escape - or so she sees it - when Christy disappears again. Her cry of disappointment, grief and frustration in the last moments expresses a near-physical agony. What does the future hold, if not marriage to the laughably fearful Sean Keogh? Keogh is played with comic vigour by Paul Hickey, and there are moments of welcome humour from the rest of the cast, including Sorcha Cusack as a feisty, still-young Widow Quinn.

The programme shouldn't be missed by school groups. It has plenty of useful material on Synge, the period of the play and its reception: there were riots after the first performance in 1907 and complaints that Synge had impugned the Irish peasant character and adversely influenced public morality.

Heather Neill

The Playboy of the Western World runs until May 26Box office: 020 7452 3000

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