THE name of John Millington Synge is celebrated all over the world, with the Irish dramatist’s masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World having been staged on every corner of the globe. The Aran Islands — a new play based on Synge’s journals from his time living on the Aran Islands — dramatises this most crucial period in Synge’s life and reveals the origins of many of the stories that would return in his great plays.
The show stars one of Ireland’s most charismatic actors, Brendan Conroy, who brings Synge to life while dipping in and out of a horde of other characters. Conroy is directed by Joe O’Byrne, who enjoyed great success with a similar format in Frank Pig Says Hello, his acclaimed adaptation of Pat McCabe’s The Butcher Boy.
“It’s that style that Joe does so well,” says Conroy. “With very little suggestion, I slip into other characters and then slip back out again. It’s seamless. Or that’s the idea of it anyway — if I get it right.”
The production went down a treat with audiences last summer when it premiered in Dublin and now returns for an Irish tour that will see it stop off in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Tralee, and Ennis.
Featuring Synge’s account of island life, from forced evictions to the women’s traditional keening for the dead, the show dramatises the writer’s long stays on Aran over the course of 1897 to 1901 while he was staving off an illness that would eventually take his life in 1909.
“Synge was always a bit restless,” says Conroy. “He’d studied music. He’d studied languages. He’d studied at home and abroad. And so this was yet another movement for him, to head out to the West of Ireland and study what he regarded as a primitive culture. And it’s very interesting, because as he observes the islanders he almost comes to absorb them. And that was the kind of recorder he was. He was a great listener. And the diaries are in some ways an extraordinary travel book — he transports you right into that society of that time, with those events and characters. But as he’s moving through the people, the island itself begins to have an effect on him.”
Chief among those things that took a toll on Synge were the harsh elemental conditions of island life itself.
“There’s a stage in the show where Synge realises that this weather is getting to him,” says Conroy. “He says: ‘The rain continues’… ‘A week of sleeping fogs has passed over’ And he asks himself what do these people do? ‘You couldn’t imagine them drinking wine on the summit of this crowded precipice, but their grey poteen, which brings a shock of joy to the blood, seems predestined to keep sanity in men who live forgotten in these worlds of mist.’ It’s a fair description of the human condition, I’ll tell you that.”
That incredible flair for rich, lyrical writing — which so informed Synge’s plays — is a feature of the diaries, too, says Conroy. Moreover, those familiar with Synge’s work will catch the occasional telling reference here and there to elements that will return later in his plays.
Says Conroy: “At one point Synge talks about how when the currachs are out, he’s left alone with a few women and the very old men who cannot row and how one of these men, ‘the oldest on the island – is fond of telling me a story of a Connaught man who killed his father with the blow of a spade when he was in passion.’”
And so was born The Playboy of the Western World.