Synge, Synge, Synge


I loathe festivals. Festivals are for pigs. Pour as much theater or other performing art as possible into a trough, shove the consumers’ faces into it, and watch while they slurp it up. The feeling may be different in outlying areas, where have-nots from all over come to gorge on a cultural sustenance of which their hometowns have been deprived, but the last thing New York needs, with its overabundance of artistic events, is a festival.

The worst of festivals is that they’ve generated a new species of art, specially designed to attract the kind of consumers who want the maximum bang for their festival buck. Festival events are now a niche market of their own, the nonseasonal equivalent of Christmas ornaments or Mother’s Day cards. The chance to watch artists from another part of the world doing for you what they normally do for their home audiences, which was one of the initial (and honorable) impulses behind the whole festival notion, has been replaced by this synthetic form of festival “property,” created solely to tour the festival circuit, offering you no particular links to any place or way of performing, only a cold, smooth internationalism—theatrical equivalents of the sterile glass-and-steel boxes called the International Style in architecture. Sometimes you hear of these items still being performed, years after the major stops on the circuit have seen them, wandering through tinier festivals in remote areas, like burnt-out stars drifting through some distant galaxy.

DruidSynge has to have been a festival marketer’s idea of a good time in the theater. The complete dramatic works of John Millington Synge, performed by the same company on the same set for eight and a half continuous hours, with three intermissions and a dinner break? Synge was a fascinating writer, and given that he only wrote six plays during his brief life, the last one left in rough draft, it’s only natural that they would share some continuity of dramatic motifs, some echoes of each other’s themes and even ways of phrasing. But these are matters of interest chiefly to literary scholars: As a way of enjoying Synge, sitting through his entire oeuvre in one day is like a pie-eating contest as a way of enjoying dessert. I was glad to reconnect with the longish, infrequently staged one-act The Well of the Saints, and I had never seen any performance of the posthumously published Deirdre of the Sorrows, but Synge’s four other plays are as familiar to me (or to anyone my age who’s done time in a drama school or college theater department) as corned beef is to cabbage.

I would have regarded the whole event as an exceptionally long exercise in festival tedium, except for one thing: Galway’s Druid Theatre has hidden a gem in the middle of its Synge-athon, much the way Deirdre’s keepers try to conceal her presence in the house from Naisi and his brothers. Nestled at the day’s center, just after the dinner break, sits the best production of The Playboy of the Western World, Synge’s masterpiece, that I have ever seen or hope to see. And I can’t conceal the sneaking suspicion that the Druidization of Synge came about because director Garry Hynes, quite understandably, thought that the whole Western world, not just the west of Ireland, should see what a great production of The Playboy she had done, and knowing that the Abbey Theatre’s dismal deconstruction of the work (by its subsequently sacked artistic director) had toured extensively two years earlier, thus spoiling the Playboy market, she invented this whole elaborate wurzel-flummery just to get her own better version a wider audience.

Well, it deserves one. Hynes is the first director I’ve seen to get all of what’s in Playboy—the smallness of its squalid details and its bigness of spirit; the extravagance of its near vaudevillian comedy and its intense, low-toned eroticism; its clear-eyed satiric bitterness about human dishonesty and its deep, rueful compassion. You can see, from her production, exactly how and why the play caused such offense—why it provoked an opening-night riot in Dublin, a near-riot in New York, and a trial for obscenity in Philadelphia (where the great lawyer and arts patron John Quinn rescued the Abbey company from jail by, among other things, getting the priest who had instigated their arrest to admit, on the witness stand, that “the people of Ireland do sometimes use the name of God other than in prayer”). To a non-Irish person, The Playboy is clearly universal—Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble played it as a study of the way capitalism encourages violence, linking its hero’s tale of his father’s murder to gangster movies and Mickey Spillane novels—but Synge keeps his universality rooted in the specific dank earth of his home region, and a captious nationalist on the lookout for slights could take almost any detail in its joyously appalling picture of humanity as an insult to Ireland. (The actresses in the original production went barefoot onstage; when they played New York, an Irish American newspaper accused them of having “English feet.”)

Oddly, much of the delight in Hynes’s Playboy staging didn’t harmonize with her efforts to build a set of repeated motifs into the day-long marathon and trace underlying psychological patterns. Playboy was performed in its own period and customary naturalistic style (Hynes’s occasional heightenings of which with choreographed vaudevillean comedy seemed both natural and charming): What did it have to do with the weirdly anachronistic costumes and contemporary behavior that afflicted both The Tinker’s Wedding and The Well of the Saints? Aaron Monaghan, Playboy‘s delightful, sparkish Christy, was noticeably flagging vocally by play’s end, probably because of his weird miscasting as the burly, hard-nosed blacksmith in Well of the Saints, a role antithetical to Christy in purpose and character. In contrast, Nick Lee, wistfully funny as Playboy‘s hapless Sean Keogh, was differently droll as the more blustery cowardly lover in The Shadow of the Glen, while Catherine Walsh, his love object as both Shadow‘s maltreated wife and the spunky barkeep’s daughter Pegeen Mike in Playboy, etched two deeply moving portraits, individuating women similar in kind but different in outlook.

If Playboy showed Hynes as a director of strong, complex vision, some of the other plays showed her discomfitingly willing to settle for the obvious. The day’s opener, Riders to the Sea, a work grim enough not to need any added grimness, was played as unrelieved lament from beginning to end, with no hope and no tension among the characters to give its crushing final scene full tragic weight. The Tinker’s Wedding, a two-scene farce that always runs the danger of seeming hokey, was staged in a look-how-funny-I-am manner that only let up when Marie Mullen and Eamon Morrissey, as the tinker’s brash mother and the nervous priest caught in the family’s squabble, cut through the self-consciousness with a little clean reality. And even they had to struggle, as the disillusioned blind couple in Well of the Saints, to make sense of a production in which the rural peasantry behaved like Wal-Mart employees at an office party. They got their recompense after dinner, when Mullen made a deliciously forthright Widow Quin, and Morrissey a vividly crusty Old Mahon.

Mullen was flummoxed again, though, by Hynes’s treatment of Deirdre of the Sorrows, which ends the day. Different from the earlier plays in tone, though not dissimilar in diction, Deirdre is Synge’s attempt at a Yeatsian tale from pre-Christian Irish myth, its jealous lover and crafty, tyrannical husband suggesting a hieratic rework of Shadow of the Glen. Inexplicably, Hynes chose to play this ultra-Celtic piece in a brogue-free mid-Atlantic speech that destroyed all connection with the flavorsome accents of the previous seven hours, and with a stiff solemnity that rubbed the liveliness out of Synge’s easy-flowing dialogue. Some of the younger actors, particularly Eoin Lynch as Fergus and Richard Flood as Naisi, made an impression despite these obstacles, but Gemma Reeves seemed a sorrow-free Deirdre and Mick Lally an over-orotund Conchubor. (Presumably Walsh and Morrissey, who in structural terms should have taken these roles, were enjoying a well-earned break.) It didn’t spoil the wonder that was The Playboy, but it reaffirmed my suspicion that a fine play well performed is a good thing, while a festival is, by inevitable logic, too much of a good thing.

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