The DruidSynge recordings, a sequence of plays performed by Druid Theatre in 2005 that are now available to stream online, give audiences a glimpse of rural Ireland in the early 20th century, as portrayed by J M Synge. They demonstrate a stifling Catholic society, while subverting expectations and questioning its rigid social order. They also challenge the standard form of the peasant narrative, a common play format in the early 1900s.
The Shadow of the Glen demonstrates the conflict between a comfortable but stifling marriage and a difficult but free life for protagonist Nora Burke. The story follows a conversation between Nora and a tramp who comes by the house on the night of her husband’s wake. The cold grey set embodies the closed nature of the play, with a window featuring rain to set the sombre mood. It also emphasises the way Nora Burke has lived in marriage, acting as a shelter from the storm while also providing a glimpse of the outside world through the window. Eamon Morrissey captures the wild energy of Dan Burke and demonstrates the power of the man of the house when he banishes Nora with a wave of his hand and a few strongly-spoken words.
The Playboy of the Western World follows Margaret Flaherty (Pegeen Mike) and the men of a rural Mayo village when outsider Christopher Mahon (Christy) comes to town, claiming to have killed his father. While certain elements of this production fall flat, Garry Hynes’s direction sets up the power dynamics among the villagers. She places certain characters behind the bar or sitting to the side to indicate their lack of power, and others at the centre of the action to indicate their importance either as a member of the community or a sensational outsider.
Equally, as the Widow Quin loses power once people turn against Christy, she is set behind other characters or below the table. Hynes also makes good use of props such as the table to convey events happening outside Pegeen’s father’s house as the dialogue and plot all happen inside.
Catherine Walsh plays the female lead in both plays, portraying the similarities between Nora Burke and Pegeen Mike. While her dramatic tone works well for Nora Burke, it fails to portray the full nuance of Pegeen’s clever, scheming character. The scenes in which Pegeen flirts with Shawn and Christy are played as arguments in this version, losing the subtleties of the characters’ interactions and Pegeen’s manipulations of the two men to improve her standing, similar to the methods of the Widow Quin.
Another of the plays, The Well of the Saints, explores the conflict of imagination and reality. It follows Martin and Mary Doul, who are both blind. A priest comes to their town claiming he can restore their vision, and the couple are delighted to be able to see again, only to discover – to their dismay – that they are both old and grey.
Different to the other two plays, this one focuses on an older couple, played by Eamon Morrissey and Marie Mullen, with similar messages about societal roles as they discover that the villagers have been tricking them for years, taking advantage of their blindness. Morissey and Mullen have excellent chemistry, bringing power and humour to their roles. The chorus members do an excellent job of centering the two leads and drawing attention to the contrast between them and the other villagers.
Overall, the DruidSynge series captures the reality of rural Ireland as portrayed by Synge. The company conveys high points such as the confrontation between Daniel and Nora Burke when he discovers his wife’s infidelity, and the chemistry between Morrissey and Mullen in The Well of the Saints, but fails to capture some of the nuances of the challenges and character moments of Pegeen Michael and her suitors in The Playboy of the Western World. Though the plays individually are not perfect, when watched together they convey the stifling Catholic society and the strange rules of rural Ireland in the early 20th century.
The Shadow of the Glen, The Playboy of the Western World, The Well of the Saints and two more plays from the DruidSynge recorded series are now available to view online, accessible on www.druid.ie and Druid Theatre Company’s social media, for a limited time only.