“Beware of poetry,” said the Belgian playwright Ghelderode, “that announces itself with placards.” Nowhere could that be truer than in putting onstage the works of John Millington Synge, whose contribution to the 20th-century Irish Renaissance was a series of plays in which the poetry is precisely the unannounced kind—spontaneous, realistically based, and casually spoken as an only slightly more emphatic form of everyday speech. Dublin’s Abbey Theatre made headlines in 1907 with the riot-causing premiere of Synge’s joyous masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World. To celebrate its own centennial, sadly, the Abbey created a revival that buried the play’s poetry under a blizzard of heavy placarding.
Synge’s raucous tale, about a youngster who becomes a village hero for killing his own father, and then devolves into a local pariah for the same deed, is precisely as funny as it is tragic; the two qualities enable each other. Abbey artistic director Ben Barnes began with a symbolic figure ponderously intoning Synge’s preface to the published text, and interrupted the action with stylized rituals more suitable to a Noh play adapted by Synge’s mentor Yeats. The realistic events in between were played out with a glum, hieratic earnestness from which only the older actors playing pub habitués had any chance of escape. Some of the youngsters, especially Andrew Bennett as the unwanted suitor Shawn Keogh, gave hints of being able to do better—if only nobody had announced to them that it was poetry.