by Beatrice Williams-Rude
The Aran Islands are a windswept group of three rocky isles at the mouth of Galway Bay in western Ireland. They have a pre-Celtic history of which little is known, the Celtic culture having long been dominant, and Gaelic being the mother tongue. William Butler Yeats suggested to John Millington Synge (pronounced “sing”) that he go to the islands, live there, and write about the people and their culture. Synge, a poet and playwright who was one of the founders of the Abbey Theater, was also a collector of folklore.
The islands are shrouded in mist and the weather is so abominable that while Synge lived there over a period of five years, in the winters he returned to Paris. Synge’s Aran Islands love affair started in 1896. It resulted in a book, The Aran Islands (1901), which was adapted into a play by Joe O’Byrne, who also directs this presentation at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
This is a one-man show and the demands placed on its star Brendan Conroy are of Wagnerian scale. He not only narrates, he acts out all the stories. Story-telling is an Irish tradition, and nowhere is this custom, the bedrock of its culture, more entrenched than in the Aran Islands. Some of the tales are true. Others? . . . “He’s liar enough for four men.” Many of the novellas bring the Decameron and Canterbury Tales to mind, with infidelity—mostly female—front and center.
Synge shows us how the people live and the myriad skills needed to exist in this harsh environment: farmer, fisherman, carpenter-woodworker, mender of nets and clothing. They are skilled seafarers and gather kelp to be burned for fuel. A spot of poteen is used to mark special occasions. Most interestingly red, not green, is the color of choice, including for the women’s petticoats, which they put over their heads for warmth when seated outdoors for a ritual, such as a funeral.
Synge reveals how, despite seemingly all-encompassing Catholicism, the ancient paganism persists and bubbles beneath the surface.
The attitudes toward law enforcement are demonstrated in a number of stories, from hiding criminals to thwarting debt collectors. In the tale of the young man who killed his father, one can see the seeds of Synge’s later, and arguably best-known work, “The Playboy of the Western World.” Humor enlivens The Aran Islands.
While Brendan Conroy does an admirable job playing the many characters and Joe O’Byrne’s crisp direction keeps the proceedings moving, after about an hour a sense of sameness sets in. I would like to see Synge’s splendid study, which takes Aran Islanders from homemade cradle to coffin, performed by a large cast in which each story-teller tells his/her own tale.
Original music is by Kieran Duddy. Lighting is by adaptor-director Joe O’Byrne; set design by Margaret Nolan, costumes by Marie Tierney. We welcome the Irish Rep in its newly renovated home.
This production of The Aran Islands is being presented by the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre in association with Co-Motion Media.
The Aran Islands. Through July 23 at the Irish Rep’s W. Scott McLucas Studio Theater, (132 West Twenty-Second Street, between Sixth and Seventh Aves). One hour, forty minutes, with a 15 minute intermission. www.irishrep.org
Photos: Carol Rosegg