Theatre Royal, Brighton / touring
  Opened 12 May, 2009

James Joyce called Ireland “an afterthought of Europe”, but watching this production of J.M. Synge’s best-known play put me in mind of a number of other European dramas and literatures which blend folksiness with poeticism to create a heightened sense of national character. (I suppose, in a way, Shakespeare does the same with Englishness.) Garry Hynes’ production for her Galway-based Druid company, first seen in Britain as part of Druid’s complete dramatic works of Synge presented during the 2005 Edinburgh International Festival, has now returned for a tour, and remains impressive.

From an almost excruciatingly slow start, as Pegeen Mike painstakingly writes out an order for various goods, Synge builds the play in intensity of action and emotion, almost like a farce; the audience riots on its Abbey Theatre premiere in 1907 only took off in the third and final act. By that point we have not only seen the arrival in a Mayo townland shebeen of young Christy Mahon, on the run for murdering his father with a peat-spade, but his lionisation by the locals and his growing into the hero of his own story. By the time his father arrives, brained and roaring, Christy has discovered the person he could be and his unashamed in his courting of Pegeen Mike. The original scandal at the portrayal of supposedly salt-of-the-earth western Irish folk as hypocrites and sensation-seekers is allthe keener because Christy is no longer a mere comic protagonist. At the performance I saw, more than once in earlier scenes a string of drool had dropped from Aaron Monagahn’s mouth, but by the third act his Christy knows, controls and accepts himself better than that.

Clare Dunne’s Pegeen Mike is the focus of the tragedy, faced with the meagre choice of marriage to the fiction of Christy or the genuine nobody that is Shawn Keogh; as Christy finds his place, she loses hers. The scene-stealers are Andrew Bennett as Old Mahon and, in particular, Derbhle Crotty as the Widow Quinn, who can somehow vamp even when swathed in a grey shawl. Crotty does not overplay the Widow’s knowingness or deviousness; she simply exudes it as she sidles up to anyone. To an extent, and English audience will still watch this play with an air of patronising colonialism. This is quite wrong: Synge was one of the first irish playwrights to begin to dramatise the nation’s dialogue with itself.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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