The Aran Islands J.M. Synge’s work adapted and directed by Joe O’Byrne in an extended run at the Irish Repertory Theatre through 6 August, first and foremost is a tome to the three, stark, wind swept rocky islands that are the sentinels of Galway Bay on the picturesque and green-lovely West Coast of Ireland. For millennia the Aran Islands have had as their mission to mitigate the ferocious and fickle storms, oppressive fogs, and shattering clashes between air, land, and sea. They provide a powerful breakfront for Galway City, so that it might prosper unhinged by the natural elements. Without the stolid, natural wall of Inishmaan, Inishmore, and Inisheer, all the harshness of the weather and roaring sea would continually have battered Galway and perhaps lessened Irish interest to build an incredible, romantic, tourist friendly city that is currently flourishing and is a favored recommended spot of Irish citizens who suggest to visitors, “You must visit the west country.”
W.B. Yeats said the same to J. M. Synge when they met at the Sorbonne, Paris, in 1896. Only with Yeats being Yeats and Synge being Synge, Yeats encouraged the younger writer to visit and spend time on the Aran Islands to get to know the people and their primitive culture and rural, seaward lifestyle. Yeats hoped that Synge’s visit would be the catalyst to spur the young man’s imagination and experience the profound themes of birth, life and death. How these central dynamisms of life teased and blasted the inhabitants directly, the fascinated Synge captured in his work. The islanders, who lived without the distractions and stimulations of city life, like the Aran Islands themselves, had to confront and withstand, as it were, the batterings of the elements with only the bulwark of their isolated community network and companionship of fellow resisters.
Yeats most probably wanted Synge to also experience the symbolism of raging nature in confrontation with the stalwart, intrepid character of the lonely inhabitants who managed a meager daily existence in an unwelcoming land. There, they had to face the torments of sickness, ill health, and old age at the edge of the world, which appeared to be going backward in man’s history when cities were beginning to experience electricity and modernism.
The fact that they were able to carve out a hard scrabble life was a luxury. Indeed, everywhere they went life and death were married in tortuous embrace and the residents, like a tribal people, used their myths and storytelling to fill the dreary nights and chronicle their relationships to each other and the land as life’s and death’s immutability clamped down upon all that they endeavored.
A visceral and memorable portrait of the natural elements, the people’s struggle, and the barren, bleak, rock-hard lifestyle and landscape are indelibly portrayed in the cadences and rhythms of Synge’s description of the Aran Islands in O’Byrne’s incisive adaptation of Synge’s work, formerly a book length journal. The sheer poetic call of the undulations of the sea in its ferocity and tameness, the delicious descriptions and sound effects of language so indelibly linked to Synge’s later writing have found a marvelous home in this travelog/ adaptation. O’Byrne has reshaped it into a solo performance of an individual, the reaffirmation of Synge himself, who is a neophyte of all things “Aran.” As the production develops, this comes to mean all realms that flow easily among the levels of consciousness in stories told about the past in historical time and place, and which do represent the present, and are harbingers of the future.
I can imagine no one but Brendan Conroy to be the sojourner to the Aran Islands, an older Synge whose face brightens as we might imagine Synge’s did when he saw the lands in the distance and eventually stepped off on to the pier and then on hardened, rocky ground. Conroy’s mastery of the poetic cadences and luscious images and his manipulation of pauses, digressions and silences transform him into the islands’ storytellers and ancient, wizened, rural magi (wise ones), who stories convey ever-present themes. Conroy beautifully renders the particularity of each with effortless realism.
I could understand and visualize every beat, every declension, every word spoken and inferred in the descriptions and characterizations of the islanders, who shared eerie stories around the central core of every family, the hearth. Conroy’s insight and understanding of how aural power may transform the listener into his or her own visualist and imagist is greatly appreciated in a time when we too often rely on visual effects selected by others to relate stories which we then can easily dismiss because we have not used our own imagination to power up the visuals.
On another level this is a production about visualizing with the eye of consciousness, of employing one’s imagination to be transported through the rich medium of Synge’s figurative, elegant, word crafting. If one listens, then one cannot help but focus on Conroy’s dark, full-bodied, resonant, somber and sometimes higher pitched musical instrument of a voice which he modulates with just enough breath and lung power to reverberate and touch the hearts of the audience.
Conroy entices all, to see encapsulated in the words, the airy visions which are transformed through the medium of sound. With focused attention and appreciation, Conroy provides us with a heightened awareness of Synge’s rich language, the sound effects (i.e. alliteration, onomotopoeia), and imagery. Conroy’s gestures and changes in posture convey the various island characters; he effects these characterizations with a minimalism that does not detract from the beauty of Synge’s words. We are rapt and caught up in the consciousness of Synge’s personal observations made real to us. It is of a time and place which is now gone but will be ever-present in the writer’s journal and O’Byrne’s adaptation.
If you enjoy Synge and love traveling to Ireland, even if at this point you have no intention of going, allow the Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of the Aran Islands to take you there. This adaption ably directed by O’Byrne, with the assistance of artistic team Margaret Nolan (set designer), Marie Tierney (costume design), Joe O’Byrne (lighting design), Kieran Duddy (original music) is incisively brought to life. Special kudos goes to Conroy’s performance effected by his prodigious talent and artistry. This presentation will bring the sentinels of Galway Bay to your imagination and deliver you to a time and place more viscerally felt than looking at historic sepia photographs.
The Aran Islands is currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street) until 6 August. It is around 100 minutes with one intermission. For tickets visit the Box Office in person or go to their website: CLICK HERE. You can order by phone at 212-727-2737