DruidSynge: Bringing death to vivid life

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Bringing death to vivid life

by Fintan O’Toole. The Irish Times Tuesday 19 July 2005

DruidSynge – the staging of all six JM Synge plays on the same day – makes an integrated whole that is more than the sum of its parts, writes Fintan O’Toole.

To put it simply: DruidSynge, Garry Hynes’s production of all six of John Millington Synge’s plays together on the same day, is one of the greatest achievements in the history of Irish theatre. The culmination of 30 years of engagement with Synge by Hynes, Marie Mullen and Mick Lally, it has the stamp of decades of thought, invention and inspiration. Because of their tragically early deaths, Synge and Georg Buchner are the only great playwrights whose entire work could be presented in a single day. And DruidSynge does what Irish theatre has never done for its presiding genius: it establishes his greatness beyond doubt. Abused and appropriated in his lifetime, and treated with a curious mixture of awe and neglect thereafter, Synge, almost a century after his death, has finally been given his due.

Druid’s project of presenting all of Synge’s plays together has been under way for 18 months, and three of the six plays – The Playboy of the Western World, The Tinker’s Wedding and The Well of the Saints – were presented last year. The expectation, therefore, was that DruidSynge would be a remounting of these three productions with the addition of Riders to the Sea, The Shadow of the Glen and the unfinished play that he left behind in draft form when he died, Deirdre of the Sorrows.

But it is very much more than that. Firstly, the productions of the previously-staged plays are radically revised, with new casts, and adapted to the single setting that serves for all six. Secondly, the completion of the cycle does far more than simply fill in the gaps. It creates an integrated whole that is vastly larger than the sum of its parts, for Hynes has given it the feel and shape of a single great meditation on life and death.

A simple visual image captures the essence of what emerges when the plays are performed together. In Riders to the Sea, some boards of wood that have been purchased for the coffin of Maurya’s drowned son stand against the back wall – a stark and silent symbol of death. In DruidSynge they stay where they are for the course of the six plays – unfussy, quiet and eloquent. They remind us of that strange turn of mind that makes the six plays, for all their vast variations of tone and mood, and for all their wild cries of grief and all their wilder hoots of laughter, so much of a piece.

For in each of them death is a constant presence. Maurya’s sons drown one by one. In The Shadow of the Glen the stage is dominated by an apparent corpse. In The Well of the Saints and The Tinker’s Wedding, youthful beauty is just a fleeting moment before decrepitude. In The Playboy, Christy Mahon’s father “dies” twice. Deirdre is the chronicle of a death foretold. Yet this haunting by death is what gives such life and vigour to Synge’s people. They talk up a storm to drown out the silence of the grave. They kick against the inevitable. They dance on the edge of the abyss. They draw their courage and dignity from knowing they will die and carrying on regardless.

It is not for nothing that Samuel Beckett acknowledged just one influence: Synge. Or that DruidSynge brings to a climax one of the underlying energies of Hynes’s engagement with the writer: putting Synge and Beckett back together again into a continuous Irish tradition.

DruidSynge is bookended by the two plays in which death is embraced and foretold: Riders to the Sea and Deirdre of the Sorrows. A set of images – a silent young boy, keening women in traditional costume, the coffin boards – that is quietly established in the first will recur with a stark beauty in the last, giving the whole set of plays the feeling of a cycle that, like life itself, begins and ends with nothing. It is this delicately drawn and brilliantly executed arc that gives the entire event its sense of aesthetic and emotional completeness. We are on a journey from death to death – but across a landscape of exuberant, defiant vitality.

The journey begins at the first instant when Davy Cunningham’s subtly-patterned monochrome light illuminates the dimness of Francis O’Connor’s austerely beautiful set. Louise Lewis, as Cathleen in Riders to the Sea, is standing with her hands raised in anguish or supplication before she brings them down on the bread she is kneading. The bread, the staff of life, is beaten and folded and coffined in the oven, violence and sustenance contained in a series of silent gestures. Here is the whole cycle in dumbshow, a ritual overture to a pagan celebration of terror, yearning and joy.

Riders to the Sea also sets the bar for the whole event, for it is an intensely moving rendition of the play. In it, Marie Mullen as Maurya inaugurates an astonishing series of performances. The production generates its own forcefield with an unadorned gravity and a pristine simplicity that form a perfect setting for the rich jewel that is Mullen’s performance. There is no over-the-top emoting here, but rather the magnetic ferocity of an old woman who rails against death but also embraces it.

In a mood that will recur in Deirdre, she wants the end to come. She wants the worst to happen so that terror and tears will be no more. Usually, Maurya is the helpless victim of death’s blind indifference. Here she masters death with her chilling, driven determination to make it fire its last shot and wrench the final dregs of pain from her heart. Mullen modulates this shift from passive suffering to active acceptance with a purity and clarity that allow an immense pathos to emerge unadulterated by sentimentality.

In a neat encapsulation of DruidSynge, Riders is followed by a radically re-worked production of The Tinker’s Wedding – the mad jig after the slow air. Mullen’s transformation from the grieving Maurya to the roguish, free-wheeling Mary Byrne switches the mood with amazing elegance, but also keeps the plays in touch with each other and retains the overall feeling of death-defying energy. She is the only survivor from last year’s production, with Simone Kirby coming in as an excellent Sarah Casey and Eamon Morrissey and Aaron Monaghan – the two actors who alongside Mullen will dominate the cycle – taking the roles of the priest and Michael Byrne.

Played in modern dress, this production is less self-consciously carnivalesque than the last one, but it is also crisper, more loose-limbed and funnier. Monaghan’s superb comic timing, in a role that requires him to be largely passive until he suddenly takes control, acts as a foretaste of an amazing set of performances. Monaghan and Mullen will run through the event like two seams of gold.

The Well of the Saints is also radically recast, with Mullen again providing the main sense of continuity in the role of Mary Doul. The philosophical schema of The Well makes it both the most problematic and the most intriguing of the plays – but its position in the middle of the cycle is ideal, for it bridges the realistic and allegorical elements of Synge’s work and teases out his dissection of the human inability to stomach too much reality and the need for stories and lies.

It also launches another brilliant pairing of performances: Morrissey’s dyspeptic husbands in The Well and in The Shadow of the Glen mirror each other in semi-tragic and farcical modes. The latter performance in particular brings out not just Morrissey’s gleeful genius for manic old children, but also Synge’s relish for the macabre – another mode in which terror and comedy live happily together.

The Playboy is, of course, Synge’s most complete play and the one that Hynes has explored most thoroughly over the years. In a way, it has become the one we almost take for granted in DruidSynge, the familiar failsafe in an exotic mix. But again, there are fantastic surprises in a production whose vigour is refreshed and reawakened by its place in the larger whole.

This is a less glamorous version than last year’s one, with Catherine Walsh replacing Anne-Marie Duff as Pegeen and Monaghan taking Cillian Murphy’s place as Christy. But it is also better, more assured, more grounded, and more richly comic – a production that stands with the great Druid breakthrough Playboy of the early 1980s. The familiarity translates itself not into complacency, but into a breathtaking fluency. Played without an interval and at a cracking pace that never feels rushed, the action takes on an electrifying roller-coaster quality that perfectly captures Christy’s transformations. Walsh and Monaghan, meanwhile, both have a strangeness, an angular quality, that makes the characters new. The language, meanwhile, sings and crackles with a fiery grace.

Of all the plays, it is Deirdre of the Sorrows – written during Synge’s terminal illness and left behind as a raw draft – that benefits most for the supporting structure of the full cycle. At first there is a fear that Deirdre will be an anti-climactic ending to a magnificent day, for its legendary subject and sometimes flat, unrevised language often seem at odds with the inventiveness of the real Synge. The first two acts are sustained by the visual richness of O’Connor’s and Kathy Strachan’s designs and Cunningham’s fabulous lighting, and by Mick Lally’s brooding Conchobar, Gemma Reeves’s fresh and potent Deirdre, and Mullen’s magnetic presence as Lavarcham.

But the doubts persist until a magnificent third act sweeps them away. The images planted in Riders to the Sea, the resonances generated throughout the earlier plays and the overarching rituals of life and death are folded back in with a devastating and thrilling effect. The seal is placed on greatness.

Runs nightly in rep until July 30th, with the full cycle tomorrow and Sat at the Town Hall Theatre as part of the Galway Arts Festival, www.druid.ie/druidsynge; www.galwayartsfestival.ie. Then at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, August 2nd-13th and the Edinburgh Festival, August 27th to September 3rd<

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