DruidSynge: The Synge Cycle - 4 stars

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The Synge Cycle - 4 stars

by Joyce McMillan The Scotsman Wednesday 31 August, 2005

THE CURTAIN RISES on the dark figure of a woman, standing at a simple table against a high, rough cottage wall, poised in the timeless act of kneading dough to make bread. It’s an image that speaks volumes about the Druid Theatre Company of Galway’s historic production of all six of the dramas of John Milington Synge; about the willilgness of director Garry Hynes and her company to embrace the archetypcal images of Synge’s drama as well as to play against them from time to time, about the central role and power of strong female figures throughout the cycle, and about the impressive simplicity of Francis O’Connor’s single set, beautifully lit by Davy Cunningham, against which the whole cycle is played out.
As Hynes’s company has learned during more than 18 months of work on the cycle, the story of the life of John Millington Synge is short and poignant enough to make a brief drama in itself; he lived for only 38 years, dying of cancer at the height of his fame in 1909. If his life was short, though, it takes just a glance at any page of his writing to demonstrate that he lived it with a sensual and emotional intensity and a driving sweetness of spirit that often takes the breath away; and if he did not survive to father children of his own, by the time of his death he had done enough, in six short years as a playwright, to make himself one of the key founding fathers not only of Ireland’s national drama, but of the whole imaginative landscape of 20th century literature and theatre.
It’s this colossal achievement that is celebrated in this wonderful presentation of the entire cycle of Synge’s work; a success that has as much to do with director Garry Hynes’s ability to stand back and let a mainly youthful company of actors forge their own living relationship with Synge, as with any dominating directorial concept. Over almost nine hours, with generous pauses, the Cycle leads us through the great arc of Synge’s work, from the severe and rugged early tragedy Riders To The Sea – in which an archetypal mother-figure mourns her six sons lost by drowning – through the bounce and ripple of Synge’s four muscular comedies, to a final revisiting of the tragic mood in the unfinished
Deirdre Of The Sorrows, a reworking of the ancient Celtic myth in which a young queen embraces the death and destruction that is her fate, rather than live more safely and less intensely.
And the overwhelming impression created by the Cycle is of the huge tension, throughout Synge’s work, between a passionate, often deeply erotic sense of the beauty and energy of life, and a profound awareness of death, and its pervasive presence. In the two tragedies, the tension expresses itself through the passionate rebellion against death, or argument with it, through which the characters must pass before they reach the final peace that comes with absolute loss. In the comedies, by contrast, Synge soars into a bold and brilliant teasing relationship with the idea decay and death, the coffin-boards in the corner of the stage always on the point of being pressed into service, but never quite claiming their victim. And in all of Synge’s plays, the tension is played out in his magnificent language, that leaping synthesis of Irish rhythms and English vocabulary in which every sentence, stuffed with image and metaphor, has the power to ripple from darkness to light like sunlight and cloud-shadow chasing one another over a hillside.
All of this is beautifully captured by Hynes’s nineteen-strong acting company, whose sustained commitment to and passion for the work, is a real joy to experience; and there is more besides. In these plays, we can see a powerful popular and mythic challenge to the overwhelmingly bourgeois voice of late 19th-century theatre, that was to inspire generations of 20th century playwrights. We can see a wilingness to place women and their experience centre-stage, as the main bearers of life through and into death, that remains exceptional even today. And we can see the creation of a whole mythic and imaginative world – a kind of Ireland beyond Ireland – through which drama could begin to soar to new 20th century heights of symbolism and surrealism.
Unexpectedly, Hynes’s cycle is perhaps at its strongest in the two lesser-known comedies, The Tinker’s Wedding and The Well Of The Saints, where she detaches Synge’s drama from its traditional turn-of-the-century setting – giving it a kind of crusty punk-traveller flavour in the first play, and an Ireland-in-the-Sixties feel in the second – to allow our imaginations to soar a little around the timeless qualities and possiblities of the plays, particularly the prefiguring of Beckett in The Well Of The Saints; the two closing productions, The Playboy Of The Western World and the strange, grave and beautiful experiment that is Deirdre Of The Sorrows, can seem a little passive by comparison.
But taken as a whole, the beauty, energy and complexity of this Synge Cycle is formidable. In the work of Marie Mullen – who plays the older female figure in five of the six plays, from a magnificently lustful and winning Widow Quin in the Playboy, to the mighty female sage Lavarcham in Deirdre Of The Sorrows – it boasts one of the richest and most powerful evocations of the many faces of womanhood I have ever seen in theatre. And in the end, it leaves us so much enriched – in our sense of the wonder of life, its terror, its sweetness, its dark humour, and the huge power of language and storytelling to make it bearable – that it become one of those mighty experiences that defines a great arts festival at its best; and engraves itself on the memory forever.