DruidSynge: DruidSynge

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DruidSynge

by Rachel Andrews The Sunday Tribune Sunday 14 August, 2005

The women, petticoats drawn over their heads, turn and raise their hands to the wall. Silently, they rock back and forth, keening.

The DruidSynge spectacle (which presents, on the one day, or as a series of double-bills, all six plays by John Millington Synge) ends as it began – with a fatalist tragedy. Director Garry Hynes rounds the circle that started with her brilliant, stylised interpretation of Synge’s one act cry of anguish, Riders to the Sea, by offering us a tableau vivant-like presentation of the writer’s final, mythic play, Deirdre of the Sorrows.

Deirdre, written as Synge was dying, is the weakest of his theatrical works. Yet, I cannot subscribe to the argument that Hynes should not have included the play in this cycle. The images of the last production – keening women, the innocent child, the desperate digging in the dirt – echo those of the first in poetic resonance and restrained power. I was as stunned by the visual composition of the three dead Sons of Usnach in Deirdre as I was entranced by the daringly long image of the daughter Cathleen holding the uncooked bread high over her head in Riders. If this is a day to look anew at the work of JM Synge, it is also a day for remembering the possibilities of theatre.

It is, equally, an opportunity to laud the fearlessness of Hynes, who blithely challenges her audience to sit through eight hours of theatre. The satisfaction of the day-long DruidSynge programme is not simply that we hear more distinctly the voluptuous richness of Synge’s language, or the fact that the plays are opened up as raw, comic, sensitive reflections on human nature – and particularly, reflections on the situation of women during Synge’s time. It is that the event is a rigorous statement on the validity of theatre in our society at a time when the artform is under pressure to push itself into perceived boxes of ‘mass appeal’.

To watch the productions of Garry Hynes is to view an uncompromising vision of theatrical entertainment. The roars of appreciative laughter at her hyped-up, frenetic version of Synge’s bawdy comedy The Tinker’s Wedding – which ends with the blackly humorous scene of a self-pitying priest bound and gagged by the tinkers he despises – did not distract from the production’s radical nature. The play is staged in a kind of parallel universe in which the exaggerated contrasts between the worlds of tinkers and priest (they are dressed in something resembling 1960s fashion, he is a relic from the early 1900s) vibrantly overstate the deliciously subversive nature of the piece.

DruidSynge is carefully, thematically structured. It is bookended by the two tragedies, and links are delicately drawn between the four other works. The lusty hilarity of Tinker is mirrored by the didactic farce of The Well of All Saints, a parable about illusion and reality enacted through the tale of two ugly, blind beggars, whose belief that they are a beautiful couple is shattered when they are given the gift of sight by a passing saint. It is no accident that the excellent Catherine Walsh takes on the role of the unsatisfied Pegeen in Playboy and the frustrated Nora in the preceding Shadow of the Glen, a play that tells the story of an unfaithful wife seeking solace from a loveless marriage.

These themes are carried through all aspects of the productions. Although Hynes is the driving force behind the event, DruidSynge is an example of world-class ensemble theatre practice that includes the set design of Francis O’Connor, the costumes of Kathy Strachan and John Leonard’s work on sound. The programme occasionally wobbles: despite everything, Deirdre remains an unwieldy piece of work; The Well is too long, and there is the odd questionable casting decision. On the other hand, in choosing to use actors such as Eamon Morrissey, Aaron Monaghan and the momentous Marie Mullen, Druid has re-imagined Synge as a forceful genius whose work makes vigorous sense today.

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