DruidSynge: The Synge Cycle - King's Theatre Edinburgh

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The Synge Cycle - King's Theatre Edinburgh

By Alastair Macaulay The Financial Times Monday 29 August 2005

Completism: such a source of satisfaction. One can cheerfully sit
through all three Henry VI plays in a day or all four Verdi/Schiller
operas in a week so as to say (as my favourite holiday companion
invariably pronounces after thoroughly touring a museum or a duomo): “That’s that done, then.” In the case of the playwright John Millington Synge (1871-1909), there are the further satisfactions of finding that his six plays can be fitted into three evenings or, better, a single day; and that, while only one of them (The Playboy of the Western World) is familiar; another (Deirdre of the Sorrows) is so rare that nobody can remember seeing it. A big bravo then to Druid Theatre Company for staging the cycle and to the Edinburgh Festival for importing it. That’s that done, then, indeed – and done proud.
To call these plays a “cycle” is to stretch the word. Still, how many
family relationships the director Garry Hynes points up between the plays without making them seem samey. The superb Francis O’Connor has designed a single, subtly changeable interior that can adapt from the bleak Aran Island cottage of Riders to the Sea to the various baronial/heroic locales of Deirdre; and has outfitted his actors in a chronological cross-section of periods. Many of the six plays’ leading roles have been allocated to the same three performers: Aaron Monaghan, Eamon Morrissey and Marie Mullen, each in five plays apiece. These actors are versatile enough to play each role a different way but their presence makes us see how Synge likes to introduce certain character elements – the forceful old woman, the wild young male outsider, the rascally old man – in one play after another.
Synge did not invent Irish drama. Elements of his plays had been staged before (e.g. the “corpse” who turns out to be alive after all – see The Shadow of the Glen and Playboy – is from Dion Boucicault’s The Shaughraun). But, in an age of nationalism, he redefined Irishness itself and he made it both Romantic and modernist. Seen together, his six plays stand as a rural theatrical counterpart to the urban fiction of James Joyce’s Dubliners.
They share a problem, though: it often sounds as if Synge kissed the Blarney stone a sight too often. Few sentences are short; there are innumerable constructions involving “and” and “for”. I love this much of the time, especially when Synge can turn it to humour: for which Hynes and his Druid performers have a ready flair.
But Synge’s two unrelievedly serious plays, Riders to the Sea and
Deirdre of the Sorrows (they share a preoccupation with sorrow and destiny), are heavy laden with Irish lyricism and not all these Irish performers can bring it off. Even Marie Mullen, for whom the cycle is a tour de force, has a bad habit, particularly in Riders, of turning her head out front and intoning her utterances in oracular mode. Deirdre, Synge’s last play, also sounds his most immature. It’s fatalistic high-medieval romance, trying to be as nobly tragic as all hell, and much of it sounds like bad Tolkien in terminally high-Elven mode.
The greatest feat of Hynes’s staging is that he brings off the
best-known play, Playboy, exceptionally. Too often this is delivered in solemn, slow, and lyrical a style. Played fast and funny, though, it takes off; and even its lyricism (“But a young girl must have her lover, and in all courses of the sun and moon”) then becomes more fetchingly natural. Monaghan is an enchanting, barrel-chested little Christy Mahon, coming into his own as he discovers himself as playboy; Mullen is at her most multi-faceted, both gleeful and rueful, as widow Quin; Morrissey is as fiercely inextinguishable as Old Mahon should be; and every character, notably Catherine Walsh as the defensive but
lovelorn Pegeen Mike, is brought to rich life. The production crowns the cycle. And this staging of the cycle clinches Synge’s place as the defining architect of Irish drama as it is still written by such playwrights as Conor Macpherson and Martin McDonagh. Here in a six-play nutshell is the Ireland its plays still portray: a country of many moods but which has four constant factors – death, blarney, provincialism and drink