Sunday 17 December 2017

Theatre: Synge's seeds get lost in translation

Emotional: Brendan Conroy gives a spirited performance in The Aran Islands at the Viking Theatre
Emotional: Brendan Conroy gives a spirited performance in The Aran Islands at the Viking Theatre

Emer O'Kelly

It might seem like an obvious idea to translate JM Synge's essays on The Aran Islands for the stage. They are, after all, an insight into the playwright's thinking. And they contain the seeds of what were to become the plays that are seminal to our theatrical heritage.

The result, however, of Joe O'Byrne's adaptation for Co-Motion Media's production, (which he also directs) at the Viking Theatre in Clontarf in Dublin, produces somewhat extraneous reflections. O'Byrne writes in his programme note that The Aran Islands (published in 1907, several years after the journals were written) charts the moment when Irish culture was given a voice. And presumably that is the approach he used when directing Brendan Conroy in the piece. But the text actually highlights a number of factors that reverential cultural nationalists would prefer to have unknown, or at least forgotten.

First of all, the majority of the islanders on the three Arans spoke English as well as they spoke Irish: most could also read and write. So much for the notion that they existed in a bubble that was part Gaelic purity, part brutal deprivation without education at the hands of the English. Second, when Conroy as Synge describes the bailiffs arriving on the island accompanied by the police to carry out three evictions, while Synge stands with the neighbours as a supportive watcher, one is reminded of the huge irony. He was able to live on the islands during four summers, spending the winters in Paris while supported by the family income which came from peasant rents collected mostly around Wicklow, and where evictions were by no means unknown.

What also springs to mind is that in any age, only about 10pc of popular entertainment is any good. Most of all television in 2016 never rises above the dreary and banal; and one suspects the same was true of the now sanctified purism of the "art of the seanchai" which constituted popular entertainment in rural Ireland in Synge's day.

This comes to mind despite Brendan Conroy's valiant attempts to give some of the stories spirited life; just as what comes over as a slightly frantic attempt to give dramatic effect to the "regular" text creates an air of strain.

The interest lies in the anecdotes which would be transformed into some of our greatest plays. In particular, the description, both in the text and in the life Conroy gives to it, of the funeral that would be immortalised in Riders to the Sea, brings tears of horrified pity to the eyes.


If there's a sure thing, it's that there's no such thing as a Sure Thing. That's the title of Eric O'Brien's and Jed Murray's two-hander play, originally a Fishamble Play in a Bag production at the Tiger Fringe Festival, and now given a deserved revival at Bewley's Lunchtime Theatre at Powerscourt Centre in Dublin. Admittedly, short though it is, the piece gets off to a slow start; but as soon as it hits its mark, it manages to both frighten the life out of you, and tear the heart out of you. Set in a bookie's shop, it traces a day in the life of a few of the regulars, as well as an autistic neophyte with the simplest of stars in his eyes who speedily gets to grips with the numbers game.

The authors play all the characters with bravura switches of mood and personality. They range from the goodhearted manager trying to come to terms with separation from his wife and small children; the old lag habitué with a good touch and who is therefore less than welcome with his accurate tips; through the pathetic addict who has abandoned his moral compass. This last portrayal is so accurate and so frightening it would put you off having a tenner on the Grand National, as he touches his mother for pocket money on the day of his small daughter's First Communion, only to con the little girl out of her communion money (more than €400: do kids really get that?) and of course loses it on a "sure thing."

Sure Thing is as close to a medieval morality play as you'll find in these hard times of contemporary realism, and none the worse for that. It's directed by Tracy Ryan and lit by Colm Maher with sound and graphic projections by Mary Doherty.

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