DruidSynge: Nasty, Brutish and Long: J.M. Synge, All at Once

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Nasty, Brutish and Long: J.M. Synge, All at Once

By Charles Isherwood The New York Times Sunday 28 August 2005

A VISITOR arriving in Ireland this summer, oblivious to the ins and outs of the culture’s century-long theatrical past, would never suspect that the history of J. M. Synge on the Irish stage has been a checkered one. Celebrations of Synge have filled the newspapers and the bookshops this summer, thanks to the enterprising efforts of Garry Hynes, the Tony-winning director best known abroad for her work with Martin McDonagh, himself an aesthetic heir of Synge, with whom he shares a gift for gritty lyricism as well as a taste for rollicking, sometimes violent physical comedy.
Ms. Hynes and her Druid Theater in Galway have been presenting all six of Synge’s plays in repertory in Ireland this summer, in separate evenings pairing two plays in illuminating combinations, or as a marathon of all six – vastly more illuminating – that can be
experienced in a single day. The cycle, already seen in Galway and Dublin, is also the theatrical centerpiece of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. It began performances yesterday and will conclude its journey on the island of Inishmaan in early September, although further international engagements, including a New York slot, may follow next year.
The project is almost a life’s labor for Ms. Hynes, who in 1998 became the first woman to win a Tony Award for directing Mr. McDonagh’s “Beauty Queen of Leenane.” It is also, in part, an act of restoration.
John Millington Synge had a deep if complicated affection for his
culture, but the love went largely unrequited during his lifetime. His first plays, which are now considered key works of Irish literature,were greeted with an outraged snarl by The Irish Times at their debuts in the early years of the 20th century.
“Excessively distasteful” was the verdict on “The Shadow of the Glen.” “Riders to the Sea” was deemed “repulsive.” And the riots that greeted the premiere of “The Playboy of the Western World” in 1907 have entered the annals of both Irish history and theatrical lore.
The problem was partly political. Adherents to the young cause of Irish nationalism preferred idealizing portraits, and Synge was not an idealist. Religion played a role in his disfavor, too: Synge was not Catholic but Protestant, a cause for some suspicion. Most offensively, he depicted the Irish peasantry with a bluntness and pungency that was deeply discomforting to the middle-class audiences of the time: the famous riot was nominally sparked by a character’s overly frank reference to Irish womenfolk’s undergarments. (The word in question -”shift” – seems preposterously innocuous a century later.)
Being abused and unappreciated during your lifetime can, of course, be a fruitful career move. Posterity is often charitable to the misunderstood. But Synge’s slender output and early death have not helped his cause – his sixth play was unfinished when he died of Hodgkin’s disease at 38, and both “Shadow” and “Riders” are short one-acts.
Only “Playboy” has entered the general theatrical repertory. In
subsequent decades, as that raucous comedy became a thoroughly domesticated part of the canon, most of his other plays made infrequent appearances even at the Abbey Theater, the birthplace of the nation’s theatrical movement.
Ms. Hynes’ commitment to reaffirming, or perhaps simply to
establishing, the importance of Synge’s artistic legacy began in 1975, when she founded the Druid. Among the company’s first productions was a radical reassessment of “Playboy,” which was hailed as a landmark attempt to reclaim the play from years of romanticized treatments. Like that production, which was revised in 1982, the current cycle, called DruidSynge, was developed in stages, produced piece by piece in recent seasons, with the final trio added this summer.
But there is nothing piecemeal about DruidSynge: Ms. Hynes has designed the cycle to be seen as a whole and orchestrated it like a symphony, with comedy and pathos emphasized in different measures as one play succeeds another. A vibrant physicality, an earthy, almost exaggerated realism and an idiomatic ear for Synge’s rich, folk-lyric language run through them all.
The connections are further emphasized by the use of the same basic set, by Francis O’Connor (a dirt floor, looming gray walls mottled by age) and Davy Cunningham’s intricate but simple lighting, and by the casting of key actors in leading roles in more than one play. Most rewardingly, Marie Mullen, who starred in Mr. McDonagh’s “Beauty Queen” on Broadway, appears in no less than five significant roles, embodying an astonishing range of Synge’s powerfully drawn female characters, defining each with indelible artistry, humor and compassion. Even if it is never seen in the English-speaking theatrical capitals of London and New York – as it should be – Ms. Mullen’s achievement may well come to rank among the legendary acting accomplishments of the era. She is a
great actress, delivering an astonishing series of performances here.
The cycle is bookended by Synge’s most uncharacteristic and unusual plays, “Riders to the Sea” and “Deirdre of the Sorrows.” (“Deirdre” was left unfinished at his death.) The other four plays are variously slyly or savagely funny, but in “Riders” and “Deirdre” a dark fatalism reigns. Placing these two plays first and last clarifies the essential bleakness of Synge’s vision: life as a volatile but futile battle to achieve fulfillment in the face of the universe’s indifference, time’s velocity and the soul-destroying oppressions of the collective culture. The inevitable end, death, is symbolized by white boards, destined to become a young man’s coffin in “Riders,” that lean up against the back wall of the set throughout the cycle, a rough-hewn memento mori that the men and women of the plays too rarely pay heed to.
“Riders,” too, earns its place as an epigraph for Synge’s theatrical
oeuvre by virtue of its setting on one of the wind- and sea-swept Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. It was during his repeated visits to these barren, rocky islands that, legend has it, Synge discovered his voice. (W. B. Yeats neatly took credit for this
development: “Go to the Aran Islands,” he recalled telling his friend. “Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.”)
“Riders” is an expression of pure grief for the brutal fact of life’s
brevity. Taut, economical and imbued with an eerie supernaturalism, it is driven by a riveting performance by Ms. Mullen as a restlessly grieving mother awaiting word of a son’s death. As Maurya and her daughters watch and wait, the rising sound of the pounding surf foretells doom. In the end Ms. Mullen’s spectral Maurya, drained of all feeling by sustained suffering, embraces the battering tides of misfortune with an almost beatific sense of peace, knowing that when the worst has finally come, at least no more grief can lie in store.
The uncompromising darkness of “Riders” is followed immediately by “The Tinker’s Wedding,” which Ms. Hynes presents as an animated comic interlude, soft-pedaling the pathos of Sarah Casey (a bouncy Simone Kirby), who as the consort of a grubby itinerant yearns to have her union sanctified by religious ceremony. Ms. Mullen undergoes the first of several breathtaking transformations here, playing the mother of Sarah’s would-be husband, a woman of fleshly irreverence and abundant appetites who is pointedly contrasted with the figure of the priest, a censorious hypocrite. The delightful image that concludes this slight but deftly drawn comedy, of Ms. Mullen’s Mary straddling the greedy cleric, who has been stuffed into a potato sack, is a joyous emblem of healthy human instincts triumphing over society’s life-denying strictures.

This strongly Syngean theme of the destructive influence of social
norms is revisited in a more reflective mode in “The Well of the
Saints,” which focuses on the Beckettian figures of two blind beggars, Mary and Martin Doul (Ms. Mullen and Eamon Morrissey). Their sight is restored when the local townsfolk urge a miracle-working priest to anoint them. Happy in their intimacy with the natural world – a sure signal of spiritual health in Synge’s universe – and in their fanciful notions of their own appearance, Mary and Martin, played with grim ferocity and humor, are all but destroyed by exposure to a world they find blighted by ugliness both moral and physical. The illusions they lived by in their blindness contain a deeper, more sustaining truth than the knowledge to be divined through the deceptive sense of sight.
The brief one-act “Shadow of the Glen” rehearses themes that are given fuller treatment in “Playboy,” which it immediately precedes in the full-day marathon. Both plays concern the connections forged between a sensitive stranger and a lonely young woman. Ms. Hynes underlines the plays’ relationship by casting Catherine Walsh, a forceful actress of a clean, strong instincts, as the lovelorn wife Nora Burke in “Shadow” and as Pegeen Mike, the feisty proprietress of a rural inn in “Playboy.”
“Playboy” is naturally, and rightly, both the dramatic and artistic
climax of the cycle. With its arrival – at 7 p.m. on marathon days that begin at 2 – the energy that has ebbed and flowed throughout the cycle reaches a sustained, intoxicating peak. This boisterous production practically takes your breath away.
Aaron Monaghan, who, like Ms. Mullen, appears in a full five of the
plays, is an unforgettable Christy Mahon, the play’s title character, a cowed, lonely soul who embarks on an unexpected journey of
self-discovery instigated by his false confession of patricide. Mr.
Monaghan’s performance grows in size and scope from moment to moment. A frightened, bedraggled mole in the play’s opening scene, he is transformed into a capering monkey and finally a roaring, bloodthirsty lion as Christy uncovers in himself, through his love for Pegeen Mike, the violent extremes of joy and rage and sorrow that life can contain.
It is clear that Ms. Hynes and her superb cast, once again including Ms. Mullen as a sweetly lascivious Widow Quin, have explored every nook and cranny of Synge’s densely lyrical text. They serve forth its treasures with no sense of strain as the tone shifts instantly from gently ironic comedy to slapstick violence to bitter disillusion. The stage often brims with eye-catching comic business – Nick Lee as Pegeen Mike’s craven fiancé and Derry Power as her permanently booze-sodden father are particularly tasty – but Ms. Hynes allows the romance between Pegeen Mike and Christy to attain a pure, operatic ripeness, too, and their bitter parting to leave a lasting pang.
The final play in the cycle, “Deirdre of the Sorrows,” is a mystical
romance based on an Irish legend. The title character is a young beauty who is raised to wed an aging king but instead runs off with a younger lover. Fate – and fear of an inevitable cooling of passion – draws them back to the king’s dominion, and to a long-prophesied death that Deirdre, echoing Maurya of “Riders to the Sea,” greets with a quietly majestic calm.
Different in style if not in spirit from Synge’s previous work,
“Deirdre” is written in a staid, imagistic and almost incantatory
language that defies naturalistic interpretation. Its mythic figures
are, like all Synge’s characters, vividly human in their conflicted
desires, but the actors are adrift in these strange waters, and Ms.
Hynes herself resorts to some unfortunate stylistic experiments.
And yet theatrically ineffective as it is, “Deirdre of the Sorrows,” in
which the dying Synge wrote movingly, even passionately, about the consolations of a life cut short before time can dampen the fires of a young heart, brings the cycle to an aptly mournful conclusion. The fact that Ms. Hynes’ and her collaborators’ great success contains an element of failure does not detract from the significance of their achievement – there is even something aptly Syngean in the cycle concluding not with a bravura bang but with quiet letdown.
A flawless presentation of his oeuvre would betray the harsh beauty of his vision. For Synge, loss was as constant and inevitable as the sea and stars. It’s the shadow of death moving stealthily toward us that puts the savor in the sip of whiskey, the tall tale or the tender communion of a long hoped-for kiss.