From time to time I’ve returned to the Druid Theatre’s productions of the dramatic works of J.M. Synge which were all performed as part of a complete package of the writer’s output back in 2005 and then filmed for posterity. The Well Of The Saints is one of his lesser known pieces – at least compared with The Playboy Of The Western World and Riders From The Sea; indeed I came to it without any foreknowledge whatsoever. It was Synge’s first full length play and bears the hallmarks of the writer of the later more successful pieces. There is a recognisable Syngian (? think that’s right?) style with its intense use of lyrical language and its preoccupation with the discrepancy between the toil of life and mankind’s tendency towards the romantic.
The play centres on an aging beggar couple, Martin and Mary, who are both blind but live in blissful ignorance that their supposed physical attractiveness (as related to them by the joking villagers) is actually quite the opposite. A passing religious figure who is referred to as a saint cures their affliction with some holy water from a well whereupon their eyes are literally opened to the ugliness of each other and the world they live in. Their cure turns out to be temporary and when the saint reappears in the district the couple face a hard decision about their futures. There is something Adam and Eveish about the couple in that they live in a state of happiness until the miracle occurs and their paradise becomes a place of torment and shame. This theme is carried further as they are finally turned away by the disguntled villagers to wander the countryside and live with their regrets.
It is interesting that Synge makes the source of their downfall religion rather than evil and it’s tempting to think that he may be making a point about mankind’s inclination to meddle in the natural world and trying to shape it to its own ends. The characters of the play, including the central couple, are overwhelmingly unpleasant. The local villagers turn their backs on Martin and Mary firstly by treating them as jokes and then by driving them away. This production musters quite a substantial crowd to jeer at the pair and reject them though briefly they embrace the celebrity conferred by association. The so-called saint seems a thoroughly unsympathetic figure and the other key character, the local blacksmith, seems pleasant enough but turns out to have a nasty streak. To be fair this emerges when Martin preposterously propositions his fiancée; for a modern audience there’s a distinctly uncomfortable edge to this scene.
The main roles are taken by Eamon Morrissey and Druid/Synge veteran Marie Mullen who both clearly relish the language which Synge employs and spit out the insults with appropriate venom. At the same time there is something quite touching about their plight and their initially hopelessly naïve view of the world they cannot see. The repartee and indeed the look of the characters instantly calls to mind the sparring pair in Waiting For Godot; unsurprisingly Synge’s play was a favourite of Samuel Beckett. Aaron Monaghan plays the blacksmith and makes a good job of this secondary role – though he is much better as Christy in The Playboy Of The Western World and the rest of the company provide solid support under Garry Hynes’ clear direction. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on with the look of the piece as the costumes seemed to range from contemporary (then) to contemporary (now), with a dash of the medieval and a nod towards the 1940s. Synge’s own direction for the setting is specified as “some lonely mountainous district in the east of Ireland one or more centuries ago,” so maybe it was an attempt to capture that.
Although it’s not a laugh out loud comedy, this production emphasises the satirical humour of the play as the old couple trade insults, shocked by the apparently unprepossessing nature of their companion when they were expecting to be confronted by a Venus or Adonis. The problem is, this is also the weak spot in the logic of the play. If the pair who have come together for mutual support have been blind (presumably from birth) then they would have no standards of perceived beauty with which to make comparison – and yet they do. Clearly that’s necessary for the plot development but I couldn’t quite get that niggle out of my head. That aside, this was an interesting production of something I doubt I would have spent time seeking out in an actual theatre. If nothing else this latest lockdown is helping to expand horizons.
The Well Of The Saints is available on Vimeo – click here
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