DruidSynge: Synge for your supper...

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Synge for your supper...

by Michael Billington The Guardian Tuesday 19 July 2005

...and breakfast and lunch. Michael Billington takes in a marathon performance of the Irish playwright’s six works

Can one have too much of a good Synge? In Ireland that’s a heretical thought – but it none the less occurred to me on Saturday, as I forsook the sunshine in Galway to spend eight-and-a-half hours immersed in the writer’s six plays. But Garry Hynes’s marathon Synge-cycle for Druid Theatre Company is a hugely inspiriting event: one that offers a rare chance to assess the man who did so much to shape modern Irish drama.

At the end of this month, the plays tour to Dublin and Edinburgh, but it helps, I suspect, to see the works in Galway itself. JM Synge may have been a Dublin-born, bourgeois Protestant but his abiding subject was Ireland’s wild west. And although Galway today is a cosmopolitan town with a strong eastern European presence, Synge’s language is never far away; stand in the balcony of the magnificent Kenny’s Bookshop in the High Street and you hear its manager’s soaring eloquence rising steadily upwards. Synge’s work still stirs local passions, too; when, at the end of The Playboy of the Western World, the hero’s father cried out against “the villainy of Mayo”, the lady behind me let out a great whoop of approval.

Galway’s Synge-cycle also has the appeal of all theatrical marathons. Cynics might say that one of their attractions is that they give you the chance to sleep for a day with total strangers. But more often the event acquires a quasi-religious quality turning the audience into a communal congregation. What gives the Synge-cycle its unique interest is that it traverses, in chronological sequence, a dramatist’s entire career. Whereas The Wars of the Roses or the Mahabharata presented us with a continuous narrative, here one gets the chance to explore the themes and passions that occupied Synge’s all-too-brief working life.

Doing so, you discover that Synge was a fount of inspiration for other Irish writers. Beckett was a profound admirer of Synge in his Dublin youth; you see that clearly in the way both writers are fascinated by beggars and tramps, use blindness as a metaphor and wrest laughter from darkness. Living dramatists like Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson also owe a vast amount to Synge. It is said that Synge, when on the Aran Islands, put his ear to a crack in the floorboards to listen to peasant speech. One feels that McDonagh, in particular, has kept his own ear cannily attuned to Synge’s peculiar craic.

Synge’s best work also deals with the theme that resounds through modern drama from Ibsen and Chekhov to Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams: the conflict between illusion and reality. You see this at its greatest in Synge’s 1907 masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World. In a famously resonant phrase, Pegeen Mike says that “there is a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed”. In other words, as long as Christy Mahon’s alleged murder of his father is a macabre fiction it gives him heroic status; the moment he attempts to translate it into reality it becomes abhorrent.

Hynes first directed this play in 1982; her latest production not only preserves the tension between dream and reality, but brilliantly exposes Synge’s delicate balance between tragedy and comedy. Catherine Walsh’s youthful Pegeen Mike, finally realising the truth about Christy’s tale-telling, angrily fans the fire with a bellows and vengefully scorches his legs. But Aaron Monaghan, kicking up his heels with joy at discovering that parricide has turned him into a sex symbol, exultantly reminds us that Christy is a comic figure; he even shares a strange kinship with Gogol’s Khlestakov in The Government Inspector in that he is seduced by his own fantasy.

The illusion/reality tension is equally pronounced in The Well of the Saints, one of Synge’s most remarkable plays and one that left its visible imprint on Waiting for Godot and Endgame. It hinges on the delusion of a blind elderly couple, Martin and Mary Doul, that both their partners and the world at large are objects of wondrous beauty. When a Saint miraculously restores their sight they discover the truth and are left craving a return to the consolations of darkness.

In some respects the play is a farce: on regaining his sight, Martin instantly mistakes a tarty village tease for his wife. But it is also a play filled with personal and communal cruelty. Seeing Marie Mullen’s silver-haired Mary for the first time, Eamon Morrissey’s Martin vindictively declares: “There isn’t a wisp on any grey mare on the ridge of the world isn’t finer than the dirty twist on your head.” The villagers themselves treat the blind couple as if they were guinea pigs in a social experiment. And behind the play lies Synge’s bleak Becketesque belief that an imagined world is better than the real Ireland of grey days, holy men and endless torment.

If there is a dominant image to all the plays, it is that of female solitude. Few women in drama are more lonesome than Synge’s islanders and farm-dwellers. You see this straight off in the balefully tragic Riders to the Sea where, as CE Montague once wrote, “you step straight through a door into darkness”. The opening image of Hynes’s production is of a young girl kneading dough with hands raised above her head like some Aran Island, Medea; the final picture is of Marie Mullen’s black-clad Maura stoically accepting the death of her six sons while keening women beat the cottage walls. Even in a farce like The Shadow of the Glen, loneliness implacably looms; at one point Catherine Walsh’s Nora, whose dead husband obstinately refuses to lie down, talks of the mists eternally rolling up and down the bog in tolling cadences that bespeak a lifetime’s loneliness.

Not all Synge survives that well. The Tinker’s Wedding strikes me as a laboured, anti-clerical anecdote. And Synge’s final play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, for all the bravura of Hynes’s staging and the eloquence of Gemma Reeves’s central performance, is an acquired taste. Drawn from the Saga of Cuchulain, it tells how the destined bride of an old king elopes with her nlover and, after seven years, returns to witness the destruction of the city. Synge’s language achieves a rare, pared-down simplicity but what I most enjoyed was the way the walls and doors of Francis O’Connor’s adaptable permanent set became even more unhinged than the characters.

I took two vivid impressions away from Galway. One is of Synge as the inventor of modern Irish drama: he patented the tragi-comic vision of life that has permeated everything since from O’Casey and Beckett to McDonagh and McPherson. The other impression was one of awe at the achievement of this 44-strong Druid company, who stage six different shows in a day with miraculous fluency. Marie Mullen, who appears in five of the six plays, also emerges as the greatest Irish actress since Siobhan McKenna. Admittedly there were times when I found my senses lulled by the wave-like rhythms of the familiar Synge-song. But I was constantly quickened into life by Hynes’s superb productions and by the ineradicable Synge image of isolated women suffering at the hands of nature, the sea, death and incurable male fantasy.