DruidSynge: The Synge Cycle

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The Synge Cycle

by Benedict Nightingale The Times Tuesday August 30, 2005

J. M. SYNGE called the Irish imagination, especially that of the far-west peasants who throng his work, fiery, magnificent and tender.On the evidence of his seven surviving plays, all of which Garry Hynes and her Druid Company have brought from Galway to Edinburgh, the same is true of Synge himself. After a day immersed in plays varying from the grimly elegiac Riders to the Sea to the rough, raucous Tinker’s Wedding, I felt exhilarated, touched and, yes, burnt by an imagination that is as far from soft and sentimental as raw poteen from orange juice.

I’d forgotten how harsh he is about the very people whose vitality, poetry and anarchic spirit he relishes. The obvious case is The Playboy of the Western World, which Hynes stages much more realistically than usual. The village girls who extol Aaron Monaghan’s drab little Christy Mahon for supposedly murdering his father whoop and squeal in ecstasy, like groupies with a pop idol.

Catherine Walsh’s Pegeen Mike, who at first fÍtes then rejects him as a fraud, is uniquely tough, hard, frightening to others. And the fights between father and son that end the play are painful and dangerous, with Eamon Morrissey’s Old Mahon gleefully cudgelling his son like a Saturday-night bruiser in a pub brawl.

But these rural Irish prove pretty callous and vindictive in the lesser-known plays, too. In The Shadow of the Glen an even meaner Morrissey leaps from what his unhappy wife thinks is his deathbed and chucks her out of the house, praying she’ll end up like a dead sheep in a ditch, ‘the big spiders putting their webs on her’. In The Tinker’s Wedding, which was too provocative to be staged in its day, a grudging priest, yes, mean old Morrissey again, is chased, bound and humiliated by travellers who can’t pay enough for him to marry them. And The Well of the Saints ends with something close to a lynching.

That’s after Morrissey’s Martin and Marie Mullen’s Mary, blind beggars whose sight has been restored by a wandering saint, refuse the second cure that their ailing eyes have made necessary, dashing his holy water to the ground. They prefer to revert to the pretence that they and the world are beautiful, not ugly. And here’s the theme that links so many of Synge’s plays. Again and again his people escape: into illusion, into imagination, into rhetoric that’s both a protest against poverty and boredom and a means of negotiating or reinventing it.

That is so even in the mythic Deirdre of the Sorrows, which Synge left unrevised when he died in 1909. Mick Lally’s King of Ulster wants Gemma Reeves’s fine young Deirdre for his queen, but she marries Richard Flood’s bold Naisi and escapes with him to Norway, only to return to Ireland after the king promises reconciliation. It’s a trick, and both lovers suspect it, but they agree that death is better than age, decay and the inevitable awakening from the dream-life they’ve been sharing.

Here, the costumes are vaguely modern, and suits, plastic macs and high-street dresses occasionally invade the other plays too. The point, of course, is that these 100-year-old plays are for now. After experiencing the energy and attack of Hynes’s cast I don’t doubt it.