A blue light pulses in the dark as Brendan Conroy speaks the first lines of The Aran Islands, now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre. We see little in this scant illumination, forcing us to focus on the words of the script, an important gear shift for this solo performance that is almost entirely tell, with very little show. Joe O'Byrne has created a faithful, if soporific adaptation of J.M. Synge's eponymous book, a peek into a way of life that had already retreated to Ireland's offshore periphery by the time Synge first visited the three inhabited islands at the mouth of Galway Bay in 1898.
Just like the book, the play is part travelogue, part collected folklore. In it, Synge (who is best known for his scandalous comedy The Playboy of the Western World) breathlessly records how the locals still speak Gaelic, long after the mainland had capitulated to English. He is fascinated by the staunchly Catholic islanders' repurposed paganism, the way they have adapted the old rites to the new God. Synge also encounters an Irish form of omertà, in which debtors are never punished since none of their neighbors will deign to serve as bailiff. When one man does step up to oversee an eviction, his own mother denounces him in the public square. These islands are essentially small towns surrounded by water, resulting in fertile dramatic topsoil. Is it any surprise that Martin McDonagh, the preeminent Irish playwright of our age, has set a trilogy of plays on the Aran Islands?
O'Byrne's adaptation and production (he also directs) eschews that dramatic potential for something a lot closer to a staged reading: Playing the role of the author, Conroy speaks Synge's words to us in direct address. Occasionally, he curls his arms and pitches up his voice to embody one of the old-timers sharing a story passed down to him through the generations.
These tales are gruesome, but they also contain some very sophisticated literary allusions. For instance, a mother attempts to say, "God bless it," to her child, but the words become stuck in her throat, much like Macbeth after his crimes. An old man also tells a story that bears striking similarities to The Merchant of Venice, complete with a loan agreement in which flesh is the penalty for default, and a wily lady advocate who comes to the rescue. "It gave me a strange feeling of wonder to hear this illiterate native of a wet rock in the Atlantic telling a story that is so full of European associations," Synge remarks with continental chauvinism (Synge was a literature student at the Sorbonne in Paris, at the time).
The issue of Synge himself (his character, his biases, and his motivation for visiting the islands) becomes lost in this faithful re-creation of his book. Conroy's veiled performance of the author doesn't give us much to consider either.
Conroy's portrayal of the old storytellers is far livelier, with unwavering physical and vocal commitment. Unfortunately, there is so little variation between the different characters that we feel like we're watching one long story time with granddad.
Conroy makes a particularly appealing Irish grandfather. Costume designer Marie Tierney outfits him as such, in a faded and rumpled suit. He waves his arms around when he gets excited, as if he were conducting a 100-piece orchestra (unfortunately, the only music we hear is a generic Celtic piano ditty by Kieran Duddy). He regularly pauses mid-sentence for emphasis (although it sometimes seems as though he's forgotten the next word). O'Byrne's lighting intensifies and diminishes with the actor's speech, occasionally dimming in to a candlelight flicker for a particularly spooky tale. Taken along with Conroy's predictable cadence, it all makes for a superb sleep aid.
Certainly many audience members will find the proceedings more thrilling, but it is hard to argue that a show with so little dynamic variance needs to be as long as it is (100 minutes, with an intermission). The second act just serves us more of the same. If O'Byrne made a more unsentimental cut of Synge's text, he could have a tighter, faster play without losing much.
Still, Hibernophiles won't want to miss this live performance of a hugely influential work. If you've ever wondered why Ireland has produced so many Nobel laureates in literature, this is a good place to start.