Back in 2005 the Druid Theatre Company of Galway embarked on a project called DruidSynge which was to see all six of the plays written by J.M. Synge performed as a cycle (sometimes in one day). Most of these were filmed and are now available to watch online. Having watched the most famous of them, The Playboy Of The Western World, some time ago I decided to double up on this occasion by taking a look at the two shortest of his plays Riders To the Sea and The Shadow Of The Glen. Both written in the early 1900s they deal with the same theme but in rather different ways.
Riders To The Sea is suffused with the aura of death from first to last. Maurya is a widow who has had eight children, six boys and two girls. Four of her sons have been drowned and news reaches the family cottage that another has perished in the same way. At first her two daughters, Nora and Cathleen, fearing that their mother will herself die, try to keep the news from her but when some rescued clothing is positively identified there is nothing for it but to face the truth. Meanwhile Maurya’s youngest son Bartley is also due to set sail and the air of foreboding grows even stronger.
Though this is a short play it is very intense and made more so by the soundscape of John Leonard where a wind whips around the house and every time the door is opened the sound of the nearby sea crashing against the rocks brings a constant reminder to the inhabitants of the cause of their losses. The poetic cadences of Synge’s writing create their own atmosphere of despair and are delivered expertly by the four main cast members. Synge expert Marie Mullen plays Maurya with a depth of feeling which transcends the often seen Irish widow woman stereotype and is ably supported by the trio who play her children (Louise Lewis, Gemma Reeves and Aaron Monaghan). Towards the end of the play a number of the local villagers appear with more bad news. They are akin to the Chorus in a Greek tragedy for this, essentially, is how the play is structured. Synge, though, is not writing about kings and heroes but ordinary folk struggling to make a living in a wild landscape that takes its toll on humanity.
The Shadow Of the Glen also centres on death but is a comedy – indeed, I’d go so far as to call it a farce. The play opens with Nora making preparations for the wake of her recently departed and much older husband, Dan; the atmosphere is sombre and oppressive. The weather is once again wild – this time it is lashing down with rain. Interrupting her ritual is a stranger (listed as a tramp) who takes shelter in the cottage and then “volunteers” to sit with the body awhile when Nora goes off to tell a nearby farmer she has her eye on, that she has had a merciful release. To say more would spoil the twist that Synge throws into the plot, but events rapidly decline into a ridiculous situation which might well have been dreamed up by Joe Orton. Along the way though there are some serious points made about marriage and the position of women – apparently audiences back in the days when the play premiered were scandalised by Nora’s apparent loose morality.
Once again, the quartet of actors (Catherine Washish, Mick Lally, Eamon Morrissey and Nick Lee) know exactly how to play the material for maximum effect and quickly bring matters to a very funny head. One of the characters had Jack from Father Ted springing to mind but, once again, I can’t say more than that without giving the game away. There were a few occasions when the dialect became so pronounced that I couldn’t quite distinguish what was being said; even so, I appreciated the authenticity with which it was done and as there were only brief instances I could generally keep track of the general meaning.
Both plays are designed by Francis O’Connor who manages to differentiate the two locations sufficiently to make them distinct and directed by Garry Hynes, as, indeed are all the plays in the cycle. Though I have only seen three of them so far there is a distinct unity lent to the contextualising of these plays which helps to make them pretty much definitive. If, as I have (partly) been doing over the last few months you are trying to fill in some gaps in your theatre going, the recordings of this sort of project are invaluable; it’s a shame that a rarely produced piece called The Tinker’s Wedding does not seem to be included in the cycle. However, Riders To The Sea is generally considered one of the great plays of Irish drama. This production makes that quite explicit although, I have to say, The Shadow Of The Glen is infinitely more fun.
Riders To the Sea and The Shadow Of The Glen, along with three other J.M. Synge plays, can be accessed via Vimeo. Click here
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