DruidSynge: Unleashing a Chariot of Dramatic Fire

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Unleashing a Chariot of Dramatic Fire

By Emer O’Kelly The Sunday Independent Sunday 24 July, 2005

To see all six of John Millington Synge’s plays as a single co-ordinated theatrical experience was always going to be spectacular. To experience the event was always going to be a privilege for anyone dedicated to theatre. But the actual event, the staging by Druid in Galway of the six plays as an interwoven repertory cloth, surpasses everything that might have been expected.

Garry Hynes, Druid’s Artistic Director, has already toured three of the plays in the past year in separate, linked, productions. Now she has re-envisaged them, re-casting and re-examining, and putting all six into a framework of old-fashioned repertory, until the glittering, occasionally flawed disc of Synge’s genius whirls like a spinning sun in the theatrical heavens.

To see almost any of the works in the cycle would be an exciting experience; to see all, particularly in one of the marathon “cycle days”, with all being staged starting at two o’clock, and continuing until 10.30pm is one of the unforgettable rewards of theatre-going.

This is the case even though not all of the works are as superlative as is frequently claimed. The Playboy of the Western World is generally held to be the writer’s masterpiece; it is certainly the most frequently performed of his six plays. The word “masterpiece” is also used frequently, and rather loosely, to describe The Well of the Saints; but had Synge not died so tragically young, it would probably have been relegated to the justifiable shadows. It may celebrate the joy of delusion, but it does so ploddingly.

The Tinker’s Wedding is a piece of sly froth, remarkable mainly for its anti-clerical ribaldry and celebration of lust outside marriage in an age when the iron fist of the clergy dominated all art forms. Yeats, a middle-class Protestant as was Synge, believed shrewdly that they were both likely to be lynched by the Catholic petit bourgeois Abbey audiences were it to be staged, and it was not seen in Ireland until the 1960s.

The Shadow of the Glen is indeed a masterpiece, not seen often enough: a rough-hewn horror which ripples on the stage with the texture of silk, the play is a template for many later works which explore the tragedy of youth denied sexual joy for the doubtful rewards of joyless and mean-minded security.

The sense of broodingdignity overcoming the venality of greed and suspicion gives the one-act piece anepic perfection.

Deirdre of the Sorrows was Synge’s farewell to life, a re-telling of one of the stories of Celtic destruction as his own pain grew more intense and he faced into the yawning grave. It is desperately flawed: stylistically uneven and uncertain in much of the characterisation, it is likely that it would have been radically re-written had the playwright lived. But it can work theatrically, and more of that anon.

Riders to the Sea has probably been given more bad productions by amateur and journeyman companies than any other Irish play ofthe 20th century, so that prospective audiences approach it in trepidation.

But of all Synge’s plays (and it was only his second to be staged, Shadow being the first) Riders to the Sea is the most perfect: a gleaming diamond where the facets are emotion and language, and the heart is a bottomless hole of despair, so black and smooth as to be iridescent.

In staging the six plays with interwoven casts and a single set, Garry Hynes has defiantly claimed the faults as well as the perfections. This is a chariot of theatre thundering across the stage to remind us of what drama is all about; it tells us that unreality can be the most real force of all: Synge was always the outsider, an atheist in a suffocatingly religious country, of Protestant stock in a Catholic society, a middle-class suburbanite observing island peasants. But like us all, he was of Ireland – and claimed our share of universality for us.

Playboy is the most “conventional” production I have seen in many years, and it as close to perfection as dammit. Catherine Walsh, raw-boned and simmering, is Pegeen Mike, just as Aaron Monaghan, small, slippery, ingratiating and swaggering, is Christy Mahon. Add Marie Mullen as the Widow Quin, Eamonn Morrissey as Old Mahon, Derry Power as Michael James, and Nick Lee as Shawn Keogh, and theplay, as much as the heart, isa wonder.

Walsh also plays Nora in The Shadow of the Glen a woman still young and longing for a share of life denied to her by her aged and miserly husband. With Mick Lally wide-eyed and dignified as the kindly tramp who offers her salvation, Eamonn Morrissey as the vile Dan Burke and Nick Lee as the false lover, it is again played to perfection, the sense of redemption touched lightly and never inevitable.

Morrissey is Martin Doul in The Well of the Saints as he is the priest in Tinker’s Wedding, with Marie Mullen as his Mary Doul, as she is Mary Byrne in Tinker’s Wedding with Aaron Monaghan as Timmy the Smith, as well as Michael Byrne in Tinker’s, Marcus Lamb as the Saint, and Sarah Jane Drummey as Molly Byrne.

The weak link is Deirdre of the Sorrows, despite a directorial concept that evokes dignity and courtly pomp. This is down to the leads, with Gemma Reeves’ lack of experience displaying itself in thin voice, awkward movement and monotonous delivery, and Richard Flood’s Naisi offering neither buckles nor swashes. And Mick Lally is largely incomprehensible as the aged Conchubor.

But we are back to perfection with the first in the chronology of the sextet: Riders to the Sea, with Marie Mullen as Maurya, Aaron Monaghan as Bartley, and Gemma Reeves and Louise Lewis as the daughters, is quite simply breathtaking in its power. Played and directed as it is, it proves itself to be the author’s ultimate masterpiece.

And as for the two names which have occurred mostfrequently in all of this: Marie Mullen and Aaron Monaghan have gained noble andmemorable places for ageneration. Their achievement is gargantuan, as is that of their director.