DruidSynge: The Joys and Sorrows of JM Synge

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The Joys and Sorrows of JM Synge

By Colin Murphy The Village Magazine Friday 22 July, 2005

The running order is sellotaped to the ticket desk like a warning. What would normally read as the contents of a “collected works” now reads as the agenda for the nine hours ahead. Six plays, amongst the most famous, and most massacred, in the Irish canon. Intimidating stuff.

And the auguries aren’t good: the two productions I have seen previously in the Druid Synge cycle were disappointing: The Tinker’s Wedding was an incongruous, dated farce; and Cillian Murphy as the Playboy was underwhelming, beautiful but not dangerous, in an unwieldy production.

The first sign that this is truly something different comes with Aaron Monaghan’s entrance in Riders to the Sea, the first play. He takes Synge’s words and spits them back as his own, moulds them in his mouth so they sound like a patois particular to him.
Amidst the anguished tone of the women in the play, Monaghan’s insight, and that of director Garry Hynes, is to take the tone down whenever possible, and the dynamic of the play changes as a result. It becomes a drama rather than, as it can be seen, almost an ethnographic study of Aran life.

And Hynes then exploits this with a closing image of idiosynchratic theatricality, choreographing the daughters and neighbours in an almost-abstract ritual of silent keening. She is setting out her stall: these plays are about Synge as story-teller, not as ethnographer. Hynes is redeeming Synge from decades of artistic exile as an object of Leaving Cert study and Peig Sayers-like chronicler of peasant life. Synge, it turns out, spins a good yarn.

Each of these plays, taken individually, can appear dated and unwieldy, trapped in a language so rich one wonders if it ever can have existed. Their tragedies are overwhelming but underdeveloped, events of enormous significance to the protagonists yet in which we struggle to find empathy. The characters can seem like parodies.
But in staging the cycle as one, Garry Hynes allows both her cast and the audience to find the rhythm of Synge, and then to focus on telling the stories.

By staging all of Synge’s plays together, Druid have found a new voice for Synge, one that doesn’t seem strangulated by the struggle with his language and isn’t overawed by the seeming grandiloquence of the symbolism he uses. The result is mesmerising, a revelation.

The ensemble are so steeped in Synge’s verse as to make it their own, relishing its vividness and its dexterity with both humour and tragedy. And through this language, what emerges is a series of stories at turns funny, shocking and tragic. It seems that when Synge listened through the floorboards it wasn’t so much the poetry he was after, as the anecdotes and the scandals. Hynes can’t hide the fact that some of these stories are weaker than others. But in this production, she doesn’t need to. Each plays a part in the whole, fulfilling a function in the context of the plays that precede and follow.

The Tinker’s Wedding follows Riders to the Sea: the satyr play after the tragedy. The play initially skirts close to the edge of jingoistic pardoy, and by staging it in modern dress, Hynes exploits this. She is right to do so. Hynes (and Synge) lures us in with our willingness to laugh at the antics of the “tinkers” and turns the knife with their triumph of sorts over Eamon Morrissey’s vulgar priest. Simone Kirby’s performance as the would-be bride is a comic masterclass.

Both The Well of the Saints and The Shadow of the Glen, which follow, anticipate The Playboy in their emphases on the grotesqueness of society and the loneliness facing those alienated from it. Eamon Morrissey in the former gives a rich and subtle performance as the blind man cured. Garry Hynes exploits the mystical elements of the piece in casting. Marcus Lamb as the saint, a man who looks like an El Greco portrait. Mick Lally takes up Morrissey’s mantle in The Shadow of the Glen, turning in a richly-understated performance as the passing stranger to counterpoint Morrissey’s wildly camped-up turn as the man of the house.

By the time The Playboy of the Western World comes, three and a half hours in, we are immersed. And so The Playboy is a very different production to last year’s; and it couldn’t but have been. There is no star. No “concept” to hang the production on, no hook. And neither is there any awkwardness or unease faced with the language.

There is simply a near-seemless ensemble, and at its heart, Aaron Monaghan, a Christy Mahon of rare vitality and huge conviction – Monaghan, in fact, is the revelation of this Synge cycle, an actor who combines a dangerous, unpredictable energy with sharp intelligence and great sensitivity. Around him, the cast tear through the play with a rare credibility and raw entertainment value. Though neither of the two women, Pegeen Mike (Catherine Walsh) nor the Widow Quinn (Marie Mullen), are as empathetic as these roles can be, they are thus more deeply implicated in the grotesqueness around them.

The day draws to a close with Deirdre of the Sorrows, Synge’s last play. It comes across something like Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut: cold, strange, rich in iconography and stated passion, but somehow aloof. Here, Hynes gives greater rein to her own theatrical imagination, seeking to give the production an energy in the staging that it perhaps lacks on the page. There are stunning touches: the storms literally shaking the stage, and the hut, in the final scene, almost imperceptibly being transformed into a cavernous grave.

But this production, alone amongst the six, falters. Deirdre conventionally requires a director to cast to type, for the beauty of both Deirdre and Naoise is key to the tragedy. But beautiful actors are rarely the most dangerous, and this is a play of danger. Jemma Reeves is a fine actor whose earlier performance in Riders to the Sea is pitch-perfect, but the awkward transitions this text imposes (from country nymph to virgin queen; and then, suddenly, to seven years on) are beyond her. Like Alan Turkington as Naoise in Vincent Woods’s recent retelling of the same story in A Cry from Heaven at the Abbey, Richard Flood acquits himself well as a strong and handsome Naoise, but without hinting at the essence of this role – a power that is a threat to the gods as well as to the state. In each case, though, this lack is at least in part in the writing.

Yet as the state comes crumbling down at the end, and the tragedy so clearly signalled throughout is finally upon us, this production regains its potency. Mick Lalley, as Conchubar, is magnificent and Marie Mullen as Lavarcham is powerfully understated. We are back in the land of Riders to the Sea, where the gods take the young and leave the old to their memories; the keeners of that first play re-emerge to bring the cycle full circle, keening now not just for the dead of Deirdre of the Sorrows, but for the sorrows of all of the plays.

In one final, gentle moment of theatricality, a young boy walks quietly to the front of the stage and holds up a framed portrait of John Millington Synge. And the lights fade to a soft spot on the frame. And then the light on Synge goes out.
And then the audience started cheering, and stood, and did so for a long time. Amidst the sorrow, there is joy – and that joy is in the telling of the story.

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