The online release of productions from Druid Theatre’s 2005 season of JM Synge’s complete works is a lockdown boon. Theatre in Galway, or any of the world’s theatre pilgrimage spots, remains somewhere in the future, but these productions are seriously alive. It’s hard to believe that they are not still being performed somewhere right now.
After Riders to the Sea and The Shadow of the Glen, I turned to Synge best-known work, Playboy of the Western World, his only full-length play and his generally acknowledged masterpiece. Druid’s production makes the connections to earlier work very clear, using the same dark, stone cottage set as for the first two plays.
The black comedy of The Shadow of the Glen is at the root of this strangely disconcerting play, which infamously caused first-night audiences to riot. An old man who keeps coming back to life, despite his son’s attempts to kill him, is both funny and grim, conjuring a line of Irish stage humour that leads directly to Martin McDonagh and Gina Moxey. In 1907, its tone must have been confusing and disconcerting.
Synge’s play has an atmosphere and a logic of its own. The inhabitants of a County Mayo village are entranced by the arrival of Christy Mahon (Aaron Monaghan), on the run from apparently killing his father. The attraction of a man with a story far outweighs any moral doubts, at least among the women. Monaghan’s performance is all arms, legs and open-mouthed gaping, and there is no doubt that he is not the sex symbol everyone wants him to be.
The most sensible figure in the play is bar-owner’s daughter Pegeen Mike (Catherine Walsh), but it is she who falls for Christy for real. The play resolves itself simultaneously as farce and poetry, because the other aspect of Synge’s writing is his celebration of Irish-English. His characters speak, despite themselves, in a welter of intense imagery, dense sentences packed with a language that speaks of place and culture. It is remarkable to behold, and Synge’s achievement in holding rural Western Irish people, at the time some of the most despised in Europe, up alongside people expected to be seen on stage, is real.
Garry Hynes’ production is compelling, bringing waves of people spilling in and out of the play’s bar room, one minute full of excitement and chaos, the next desolate. The poverty of the setting is emphasised, with what might appear to be a pub on the page nothing more than a counter in an earth floored room. The cast is excellent, but Catherine Walsh’s Pegeen Mike is a still point among the rushing events, trying and failing to stand apart and absorbing the play’s contradictions until her final lamentation, as she grieves the ‘playboy’ she has just rejected. Druid have made two more of the Synge plays available online – Deirdre of the Sorrows and The Well of Saints. I will be watching…