Catherine Walsh as Nora in The Shadow of the Glen.
Marie Mullen in Riders to the Sea.
The lockdown may have ended theatre as we knew it, for the unforeseeable future, but it has driven some gems out of hiding and on to the internet. Production quality varies greatly, both in terms of the show itself and its presentation. Galway’s Druid Theatre show everyone exactly how it should be done with their online films of two JM Synge short plays from 2005. These were part of the DruidSynge project, performing Synge’s complete works for the first time, under the direction of Garry Hynes, a landmark event in recent Irish theatre. They are beautifully filmed performances, delivered with a weight that is almost overwhelming.
The Shadow of the Glen was Synge’s first play, set in a cottage at the end of a long County Wicklow glen, beset by mist. It is grim and strange, with hints of the more folklore-based parts of Ibsen’s work. We seem to be in middle of a cruel tragi-comic, even farcical parable. The body of a little lamented elderly husband is stretched out in a small, dark cottage when a Stranger arrives, a man of the road looking for a drink. Nora, the lady of the house, obliges. Then events take a turn that cannot be discussed with spoiling the surprise. However, Synge systematically deromanticises peasant life in the course of half an hour, leaving us in no doubt about how women’s lives hung by a thread, dependent on their husbands and their reputations. Stuck in a tiny house with the barest essentials in the middle of nowhere, its not difficult to see how a wife might grab any opportunity for company, and how a life on the road might ultimately prove the better of some terrible options. When first performed in 1903, the play raised controversy with Irish nationalist who considered it to be slanderous to Irish womanhood. It’s safe to say they were missing the point. The performances are excellent – Catherine Walsh as the Lady of the House in particular – and seem to be channelled from deepest Wicklow a long, long time ago.
Riders to the Sea is set in the same cottage interior, but it is now on the remote Aran Islands. This was Synge second play, and this time it upset people with its dismissal of religion. The matriarch of the play has lost son after son to the sea and considers herself cursed, doomed to lose the last son who remains – unable to convince him to stay off the sea as the wind rises in the south. Her two daughters look on, with little in prospect but lives of waiting for death to come from the sea. The play is dark but entirely human, with a devastating detail of the dropped stitches on a sock retrieved from the sea that allow a sister to identify her drowned brother’s body. Marie Mullen’s Maurya has the stature in grief of a figure from Greek tragedy and her final line – “No man at all can be living forever and we must be satisfied” – is, remarkably, taken verbatim from a letter to Synge from a young Aran islander he met during his research. The line between ordinary speech and poetry in these plays is impossible to locate, and the line between ordinary experience and myth is obscured in the mist. Druid has also posted their production of The Playboy of the Western World online, and these shorts are perfect preparation.