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The Aran Islands – Viking Theatre – Review

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The Aran Islands – Co-Motion Media at the Viking Theatre, Clontarf – Review by Paddy McG

From Jan 6-23
By J M Synge Starring Brendan Conroy
Adapted and directed by Joe O’Byrne

One-person performances can often disappoint due to the flimsiness of content or the limitations of the performer – or both. However, theatregoers need have no such misgivings about this piece, devised and directed by Joe O’Byrne and performed by Brendan Conroy. Based on J M Synge’s journals from his extended visits to Aran from 1898 to 1902, the content is rich, illuminating and diverse, and Conroy’s performance readily brings to life the stories of the Aran islanders as he moves with ease between narration, description and the dramatisation.

The first act evokes Synge’s arrival on Aran, his response to the place and the reaction of the islanders to this stranger. Conroy is consummate in conveying the future playwright’s awe and excitement at what he encounters on the islands – a world away from the privileged society of refined Rathfarnham, the RIAM, TCD and the Sorbonne that were his natural milieu. Soon the outsider is gaining the trust and acceptance of the natives, hunkering down by hearthstones to hear stories of real life and folktales, elements of which will find expression in his work. The actor’s recreation of the storytelling is animated and highly entertaining, very much in the tradition of Eamonn Kelly’s seanchai, with indeed more than an echo of Kelly’s Kerry rhythms and intonation on occasion.

The second act presents Synge’s experience of and observations on events and experiences of the island community. Synge is a powerful witness to the grief of eviction, the close sense of community that prevails among the islanders and the contempt for anyone who would betray that community loyalty. His detailed description of two very different funerals and the rituals and expressions of grief is but one of many gripping and illuminating episodes, told with consummate, quiet understatement by Cauldwell. Not so quiet – and for this reviewer the only jarring note in the entire evening – is the hyperactive dramatisation of one of Synge’s dreams. It seemed as if its sole purpose was to offer animation and excitement, in contrast to the rest of this section.

Stories of the “white boards” brought to the island, the sound of the coffin-making and the ollagoning of the mna caointe are obviously the foundation for Riders to the Sea. Similarly we recognise the origins of the Playboy’s Christy Mahon in the story of the young man who killed his father, was concealed from the law by the islanders until smuggled to America, their sympathy rooted in the observation that no man would kill his father if he could help it – and no doubt influenced by their experience of the law as agent of eviction. In the amusing story of the would-be widow and her lover, we combine elements of In the Shadow of the Glen and The Playboy’s Widow Quin.

This is a fine evening’s theatre and well worth venturing out to even on these chilly evenings. It continues at The Viking until January 23rd.

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Categories: Header, Theatre, Theatre Review

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