By Pat Launer
We just got back from Ireland
Begorrah and Erin-go- bragh !
With its hills, vales, glens and greenness
It’s truly a Shangri-La.
We drove about 1500 miles
Greeted with Guinness and Jameson’s and smiles.
The Irish, with their castles, bens and birds,
Onstage and off, are besotted with words.
The Irish literary tradition is one (of many) of the Emerald Isle’s justified boasts and brags (the heart-stopping beauty, soaring economy, historical and megalithic sites are some others). We were lucky to be availed of a perfect theatrical sampling – one classic, one modern, one traditional.
The classic was a double-bill produced by the Druid Theatre of Galway, and directed by the Tony Award-winning Garry Hynes (1998, for her searing production of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”). We caught a one-night-only preview of two pieces from DruidSynge , which premieres at the upcoming Galway Arts Festival, presenting a cycle of the six plays of John Millington Synge.
Synge (pronounced SING), who lived from 1871-1909, had a tragically brief career, yet it established him as the foremost dramatist of the Irish Renaissance. In his early years, he spent some time in France , translating the poems of Mallarmé and others. In France , he met his countryman William Butler Yeats, who encouraged Synge to return to the Irish countryside, where, he said, the peasants’ speech was unique and poetic. Synge took the advice, and later claimed that his plays amounted to literal transcriptions of the verbalizations of the peasants of Western Ireland . His third play, but the first produced, was the one-act “In the Shadow of the Glen” (later renamed “The Shadow of the Glen”). The 1904 premiere, a production of the Irish National Theatre Society, was part of the opening of the now-acclaimed Abbey Theatre in Dublin
Like many of his works, the play was b ased on stories Synge had collected on the stark, isolated Aran Islands off the West coast of Ireland . The plot concerns an unfaithful wife, and the play created an immediate controversy for the playwright and the National Theatre. The confrontation was the beginning of Synge’s volatile relationship with the nationalist community in Ireland , and set the stage f or the more extensive conflict that erupted four years later at the premiere of “ The Playboy of the Western World .” These were the two plays we saw on one lovely Galway evening.
“The Shadow of the Glen” focuses on a loveless and decaying marriage, which was hardly untrod turf, but many Irish nationalists saw it as “a slur on Irish womanhood.” In plot and theme, Synge’s play owes an obvious debt to Ibsen’s 1879 masterpiece, “A Doll’s House.” In both dramas, a frustrated woman –- in both cases named Nora – the victim of an unhappy, passionless marriage, walks out the door at the end, leaving her husband behind. Both plays shocked their respective societies, for flouting cultural norms. Both gutsy protagonists are now viewed through feminist eyes.
Synge’s Nora isn’t taken up by the admiring neighbor who’s far closer in age to her than her older, supposedly dead husband. Instead, she goes off with the Stranger, a wanderer who offers the freedom of the road, connection with the land and an unlimited amount of “fine talk,” despite his lack of the material goods that were so important to her cold, crude husband. In spite of the criticism of Irish marriage, and the fact that half the National Theatre Company (those not performing) walked out on opening night, the Theatre stood by the piece, revived it often, and the play came to be regarded as one of Synge’s great works, and one of the highlights of the National Theatre’s early years.
The response to the opening of “Playboy of the Western World” was even more virulent, though it’s come to be considered Synge’s masterwork. Riots broke out during the play’s opening week in Dublin , 1907. Because of Synge’s realistic yet poetic portrayal of the realities of Irish country life , many theatergoers thought the piece was indecent, and created or promoted negative stereotypes.
The play focuses on the reception given to Christy Mahon as he wanders into a small Irish village, declaring that he has just murdered his abusive father. The villagers initially celebrate Christy, determining that his courageous act has made him “the playboy of the western world.” Their vision of him soon changes dramatically. In his depiction of the interaction between Christy and the villagers, and especially of the relationship between Christy and Pegeen Mike Flaherty, an attractive, strong-willed, young local woman, Synge explores the bruising effects of social convention and celebrates the power of the imagination. He also, quite topically, considers the perils of hero worship – and how human nature loves to tear down what it builds up. At first, Christy’s apparent heroism invigorates the bleak, disheartened village. But when they find out that he’s a sham, that his story is a confabulation, they go after him with a vehemence as forceful as their prior adulation. The intimations of human (read: Irish) frailty proved incendiary, engendering violent reactions among the press and the populace.
One hundred years later, Ireland is in the midst of another renaissance; it’s currently the most prosperous and successful (and expensive!) of the EU countries. So this is a perfect time to revisit the plays. And the chance to see a repertory company performing the two pieces in one night was irresistible.
Unfortunately, though the productions were effectively staged, neither was as stellar or compelling as one might have hoped. Having the same actor (Catherine Walsh) play the two lead women proved a liability rather than an asset. Her portrayals of both forthright women were too indistinguishable, though Pegeen Mike should be a far lustier, fiery and more unconstrained woman. Both seemed equally depressed and suppressed (except in the wonderfully lyrical love scene between Christy and Pegeen ). In general, though, Walsh highlights the similarities in the two protagonists, not their differences. Likewise, the weak men in the two pieces — Michael Dara , Nora’s neighbor in “Shadow,” and Shawn Keogh, Pegeen’s wimpy fiancé in “Playboy” — are portrayed by the same performer (Nick Lee). It might be an interesting directorial choice, given the thematic and character parallels in the two plays: both feature a dead person who’s surprisingly alive, and the entrance of an outsider who changes everything in a formerly routine universe. But so sharply underscoring the commonalities doesn’t do any favors to Synge, to the Company, or to the distinctiveness of the plays and their very different tonal shading. A standout performance in “Playboy” is offered by Marie Mullen as Widow Quin , here played with a delightful mix of cunning and ripened sexuality.
The weathered-wood set (Francis O’Connor) nicely converts from a rundown, east-coast Wicklow cottage (in “Shadow”) to a house-pub on the wild Western coast of county Mayo . The sound (John Leonard), lighting (Davy Cunningham) and costumes (Kathy Strachan ) are wonderfully evocative of time and place. Original music was composed by Sam Jackson. But it was the director (Druid Theatre founder/artistic director Garry Hynes) who failed to make the Synge plays sing.
DruidSynge is part of the Galway Arts Festival at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway , running thru July 30. The cycle then moves on to the Olympia Theatre in Dublin , August 2-19 and the Edinburgh International Festival, August 27-September 3.
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF ULSTER
When the baby Deirdre was born, a druid prophesied that she would grow up to be extremely beautiful, but she would bring great sorrow and suffering to the people of Ireland . Instead of killing her, the King had her spirited away to a tower, to await his planned marriage to this beauty. One day, by chance, she meets Naoise , a warrior in the King’s army. They fall instantly in love; a fearful battle ensues with the king’s warriors, which leaves hundreds dead. The couple is forced to flee to Scotland , where the Scottish king wants this beauty for his own. More fighting, and more deaths of the Irish. When the couple finally returns to Ireland , the King, promising peace, invites them to a great feast. But it’s a trap. Naoise is murdered and Deirdre is captured and forced to submit to the king. Her grief is insurmountable; resolving to be with Naoise forever, she dashes her head against a rock. She is buried in the same graveyard as Naoise . In the funeral tradition of the Celts, a yew stake was driven into each of the graves. Over time, the branches of the two trees intertwined, showing that even death could not extinguish this great love.
Deirdre and Naoise , or Deirdre of the Sorrows, is one of the most famous and beloved of Irish myths/legends. It is their Helen of Troy, their House of Atreus, their Romeo and Juliet; their tale of true love vs. lust for power, of familial distrust and betrayal, of marriage in the face of family opposition, of beauty as catalyst for destruction. The story has been told a thousand times, in a thousand ways. But now, the Abbey Theatre is presenting the world premiere of a new, lyrical retelling that makes the metaphysical political and the political timely.
Irish playwright Vincent Woods has written poetry, plays for adults and children, radio plays and adaptations. His work has been translated into French, German and Irish. French director Olivier Py has directed theater, opera and one film, and has also written and acted in plays, and pursued a singing career as well (under the stage name of Miss Knife). In interviews, they’ve said they felt like dramatic brothers when they met. And yet, in their first collaboration, “A Cry from Heaven,” they seem to be working at cross purposes.
Woods’ writing is lyrical and poetic. Py’s direction is stark, highly stylized, presentational and confrontational. His production is so High Concept that it clouds, even at times obliterates and overwhelms, the story. He is trying to show the tragedy of never-ending war. The suffering, the inescapable horror of a world eternally in conflict. But there are too many distractions. The set is black, and the actors are dressed in black, in white-face. They start out standing downstage in a line, facing the audience, talking into handheld microphones. Soon, the rain begins. And it rains. And rains. The stage and actors are dripping wet. We fear for their safety. They move the multi-level stanchion set. Repeatedly. Constantly. The rain continues. A wheel (Highly Symbolic!) is pushed on. And off. And on again. There is violence, blood, nudity, entrails. It looks very much like the other Py productions depicted in a large photographic book being sold in the Abbey’s lobby.
In the second act, waiting for a dénouement, you hope for a different feel or look. But alas, the rain continues. The wheel is back. The black and white bulls make another appearance. It all becomes so tedious. And that’s really too bad, especially since the story is so tragic and heartrending, and so important to Irish people and culture. The narrative becomes secondary to the Concept. Admittedly, there are some gorgeous stage pictures. But it doesn’t obviate the huge production problems.
A long-time Dublin theater-person, the marvelous Marie-Louise O’Donnell, a friend of Marianne McDonald’s, wrote her own free verse response to the play. I think it captured an Irish perspective on the piece, so I’m excerpting a bit here:
“It was huge and vast and epic. All black… Earthy. Pagan. Ritualistic. Bawdy. Lewd. Savage. Some said pornographic. Decadent. …
A story we all knew, have lived, have seen, have heard, have learned. A story we wanted so much to identify with, could identify with. A story we could breathe… But we were not allowed entrance into the drama… Forgotten in the black moving menagerie. The loaded coarse black set always on wheels moving, Keeping us out. With its great heights and yet no sense of the lyric sky. And so they lost us. … A grandiose vision. But no visionary.”
Even the performances were problematic; most actors emoted or yelled (trying to make themselves heard over the rain and sound effects?). Kelly Campbell wasn’t strong enough as Deirdre; Alan Turkington was attractive but not irresistible as Naoise . Conor the King ( Clarán Taylor) was played as an idiot. Fergus, the former King, was portrayed with power and compassion (Denis Conway). Barry McGovern was compelling as the Druid Cathach . As the monstrous mother, Ness , Olwen Fouéré was anguished and frightening at times, screaming and shrewish at others. Some in this 13-member cast are acclaimed Irish actors. But this wasn’t their finest hour.
At the Abbey Theatre in Dublin , through July 16.
THE IRISH ISLES ARE SMILING
One sheer, unalloyed dramatic pleasure was Siamsa Tire, the National Folk Theatre of Ireland, which had been recommended by another friend of Marianne McDonald, theater-writer Tony O’Dalaigh . Based in Tralee, on Ireland ’s jaw-dropping west coast, this company performs in a beautiful 355-seat space built to look like an ancient ring-fort, right in the middle of town. The Gaelic name refers to the impromptu entertainments enjoyed in the homes of farm-folk, when they ramble into a neighbor’s cottage, to listen to a storyteller or join in a night of music, song and dance around a flagstone kitchen floor.
With joyful music and dance, using the Gaelic language and dramatic convention, they tell the stories of Ireland ’s past and present, its myths and folk heritage. The play we saw, “ Oileán , Celebrating the Blasket Islands ,” has been performed for four years, at home, around Ireland , and on international tours. Most of the performers (uncredited in the program) have been with the company since childhood. Many start at age 5 with the three-year training. The youngest in this cast was 3; the oldest had been with the group since its founding 31 years ago.
In a series of vignettes, sung a capella or with wonderful musical accompaniment (2 fiddles, percussion, flute, keyboard, accordion), “ Oileán ” reveals a great deal about life on the remote Blasket Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, beyond the Dingle Peninsula (a Gaeltacht , or Gaelic-speaking area). From stylized moves to impassioned Irish step and set-dancing, we learn of the peace and solitude of the island, the fishing nets, the matchmaking and a wedding, the education, the salvage items from a shipwreck that bring unthought-of luxuries to the plain townsfolk, and their religious and supernatural concerns. But it’s not all sweetness and light. There’s the pain of young folks leaving the island to seek their fortune elsewhere, and even the death of a young child, due to lack of access to adequate (or sufficiently rapid) medical care.
In its simple but extremely well executed steps and songs, this production far outstrips the ultra-schmaltzy, over-written “ Riverdance ” or “Lord of the Dance.” This is the Real Thing, in the native language, the stories told with heart and energy that’s palpably genuine. If you’re ever in Ireland , this is a piece of the culture you won’t want to miss.
In Tralee , Ireland ; rotating shows, ongoing.
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks )
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” – just about flawless; director Sean Murray does it again! Gorgeously designed, directed and acted. A too-rarely-seen classic brought to magnificent life!
At Cygnet Theatre, through July 10.
“ 42nd Street ” – glorious celebration of Bway’s glory days. Wonderful performances, outstanding choreography and dancing. Sheer delight!
At the Welk Resort Theatre, through August 28.
“The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron” – a fun date night, which shows both genders a few of their more amusing and infuriating foibles.
At the Theatre in Old Town , closing (after >250 performances), on September 4.
Happy July! Let your body bask in the beauty of summer by day– and your mind be stirred up in the theater at night!
© 2005 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.