GALWAY, IRELAND — For the better part of the last decade, Garry Hynes has been a woman on a mission.
The plays of John Millington Synge (1871-1909) were a building block of her theatrical career: In the early days of Druid Theater Company, which she co-founded in 1975, Hynes directed several of his works, including what is considered the definitive staging of “The Playboy of the Western World” in 1982.
But despite her efforts, even in Ireland, Synge’s plays beyond “Playboy” are largely unknown. He is revered as a cultural icon and one of the fathers of the Irish national theater, and yet this acclaim is built on very little knowledge of what he actually wrote. For Hynes, the only way to do Synge justice was to put all his plays into production at once.
On July 16, Hynes’ dream project was finally unveiled: DruidSynge, the first-ever staging of Synge’s complete theatrical canon, opened at the Town Hall Theater in Galway before traveling to Dublin and the Edinburgh Intl. Festival in August. Viewers have the option of seeing all six plays in a single day — a commitment of some eight-and-a-half hours, including intermissions — or of picking and choosing between pairs of plays presented on subsequent evenings.
It is a massive project, and undoubtedly a beautifully executed one. The design is exceptionally unified, the acting generally excellent — and in the case of Marie Mullen, Eamon Morrissey and Aaron Monaghan, outstanding.
On the surface, Synge’s subject matter was Irish peasant life, but he was himself the privileged descendant of wealthy Protestant landowners. He therefore depicts lifestyles, values and linguistic patterns that he observed closely but were never his own.
The words most often used to describe Synge’s work are “ambiguity” and “irony” — slippery concepts that have everything to do with the perception of the beholder. Bucking the then-current trend of romanticizing the simplicity of peasant life, his characters are often greedy, conniving and irreverent, and speak in a particularly ornate, convoluted diction that was Synge’s interpretation of the Irish language converted into English.
When Synge critiqued the pieties of Irish life, particularly religion and sexuality, he hit a raw nerve (hence the “Playboy” riots); but in his own way, he idealized and objectified the people he wrote about.
Because Synge’s achievement is so difficult to classify, the unifying element — and the star player — in DruidSynge becomes Hynes herself. The brilliance of her approach is to take each play on its own terms, not apologizing for its ambiguities but playing them up; and to place them in an order that shows off the versatility of playwright, director and acting company alike.
Hynes throws the audience immediately into the emotional deep end with “Riders to the Sea,” a full-blown tragedy in one short act; then heads straight into the exaggerated comedy of “The Tinker’s Wedding.”
Updating “The Well of the Saints” to the 1950s enhances Synge’s ironic commentary on religious fanaticism. Hynes’ “Shadow of the Glen” is a lone misfire, failing to capture the sharp, dark comedy in its story of marital realpolitik.
The DruidSynge production of “Playboy” premiered last year but has been almost completely recast since, and is now even more impressive: Its relentless pace draws the audience into the collective frenzy it depicts.
Finally, Hynes turns “Deirdre of the Sorrows,” which Synge left unfinished at his death from cancer at age 38, into a requiem for the playwright, via some spectacular theatrics and — in an ill-judged mawkish gesture — the climactic revelation of his portrait onstage.
Hynes may well have accomplished her mission of increasing awareness of Synge’s complex and varied achievement, but she has done so while bolstering her own status as the most talented and determined theater director Ireland has produced in many years.