In Conversation: Garry Hynes
Garry Hynes talks with Joyce McMillan on Synge Cycle for The Scotsman Critique (19 March 2005)
IN THE DUBLIN THEATRE FESTIVAL five years ago, a Galway-based company called Macnas staged a wildly popular promenade show called The Lost Days Of Ollie Deasey, in which a young lad chased his lost Dad – a famous hurling or shinty champion – across the badlands of 1970’s Ireland. At one point, the young hero falls out of a bus in a small rural village and blunders into the village hall, only to find the local amateur dramatic society in full flow, playing the final scene of JM Synge’s Playboy Of The Western World. And the Dublin audience
positively roared with affectionate, embarrassed recognition, as they stood in front of the little puppet-booth that represented this scene, watching the tiny puppet-players squeak out some of the most well-worn lines in Irish theatre history, all written in Synge’s famous invented form of highly-wrought Irish English, based on the lilting rhythms of the Irish language itself.
For it’s been the fate of John Millington Synge – born in Rathfarnham in 1871, died in Dublin in 1909 at the age of only 38, musician, writer, and author of six plays all written in the last six years of his life – to be misrepresented by history in two ways. First, his 1907 comedy The Playboy Of The Western World – famously set in a tiny west coast village where the people fall hook, line and sinker for a charming young stranger called Christy Mahon who claims to have murdered his evil old dad – is so much better known than his other works that it often seems as if Synge had written nothing else. And secondly – because of the tense political times in which it was written, and the astonishing riots
and protests that accompanied its first performances in Dublin in 1907, when it was condemned by one nationalist publication as “an unmitigated, protracted libel against Irish peasant men and, worse still, upon Irish peasant girlhood” – the story of Synge and The Playboy has become so bound up with Irish political history, and the struggle for independence, that the other dimensions of his work have often gone unexamined and neglected.
But now, the leading Irish theatre director Garry Hynes is on a mission to change all that, by staging all six of Synge’s plays together, in a massive eight-hour cycle that will open in Galway this summer, and then move on to this year’s Edinburgh Festival. When Hynes founded her Druid Theatre Company in Galway in 1975 – naming it after the character of The Druid in the Asterix The Gaul cartoons, since he was “the one responsible for creating magic” – it was the first professional theatre company based outside Dublin that modern Ireland had seen; and many people thought the project was doomed. But from her base in Galway, Hynes began to build a huge international reputation as a director,
taking a four-year break from Druid in the early 1990’s to become Artistic Director of Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey in Dublin. And now, she has finally succeeded in putting together the project of her dreams, the chance to stage all of Synge’s plays in a single space, with the same creative team and the same ensemble of actors, and – for some audiences at least – all on the same day.
“We staged The Playboy back in 1975, right at the very start of the company,” says Hynes on the line from Western Australia, where her production of The Playboy, the first in the cycle, has just been delighting audiences at the Perth Festival. “And as I worked on it, I began to think, this is really just a wonderful, extraordinary play, not at all the dusty old text we learned at school; and ever since then, we’ve had the idea that it would be wonderful to do all the plays together, and to give audiences an opportunity both to see the less familiar plays, and to review the more familiar ones in the context of Synge’s other work.
“I think part of the problem is the perception that Synge can be seen as some kind of national or state playwright; whereas in fact he had a dread of institutions of all kinds, and I think that perception of his work would have upset him dreadfully. So what we want to do is to encourage people to look at Synge as a writer, first and foremost. And I must say I find him an intensely modern writer, full of irony and parody, and complex ideas about how we create our own identity. In terms of what he was writing about, he was a ground-breaker; and although he’s had many successors in Irish drama, I think the only valid comparison is with Beckett.”
So how are Hynes and her team going to help audiences navigate their way through the strange invented landscape of Synge’s drama? The six plays in the cycle vary hugely in length, from the standard two-hours-plus of The Playboy and The Well Of The Saints – a study of two old beggars who, offered a miracle, choose blindness rather than the banal reality of the visible world – to three tiny 25-minute pieces, the comedy The Shadow Of The Glen, the tragedy Riders To The Sea, and the unfinished Deirdre Of The Sorrows; and Hynes says that she and the company have yet to decide on the right order of performance for the “Marathon Days” when they will perform all six plays in sequence. But there is, she says, a tremendously strong “spine” to the work, a sense that all the plays belong together, as an expression of the same passionate desire to create and reinvent.
“I think what Synge did,” says Hynes, “was to create a new world, a whole new language and content that almost sprang fully-formed from his pen; and it’s fascinating to see how he works to express these different stories through that language, how he uses different levels of comedy and tragedy, for example.
“But if I had to define the thing that binds the plays together, I’d say it was this an absolute, passionate sense of the preciousness of life, in the presence of death; Synge was always intensely aware of death. And his belief the supremacy of the individual, the need to preserve that against all the institutions, the authorities, the orthodoxies, the pressures to conform. And of course, the idea of the imagination as the only real power to set people free; the right to reimagine yourself as something completely different, as Christy Mahon does in The Playboy, and to move on from there.”
The Synge Cycle plays at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, on 27 and 31 August and 3 September, with shorter programmes of plays from the cycle on 28 and 29 August, and 1 and 2 September.