You have not experienced Irish theatre until you have seen a show that involves a ferry, rain, stone-walled fields and the keen, mild interest of the Aran Islanders, who have great good manners and no shortage of self-esteem. It can’t be easy being the object of a century of tourist curiosity, but these people have a steady gaze. The world comes to them and then it leaves. Somehow it feels as though the visitors, and not the inhabitants, are on display.
The biggest ‘Were you there?’ of them all is the 1982 Playboy of the Western World, performed by Druid Theatre Company on Inis Meáin. This is the island where Synge lived in order to study the locals (who were, in fact, studying him) and to learn the Irish language, before sitting down to write the romance performed in the Abbey in 1907, and in a thousand hokum, stage-Irish productions since. An archival clip on RTÉ’s website shows a nervous sense of certainty in the director Garry Hynes, just 29 at the time, as the company gets the hall ready for the evening performance. Perhaps she knows that the cruelty and naturalism of her production – complete with fleas and mucky, bare legs – will not be found insulting, that it will be recognised. The Druid Playboy was a return to the culture that existed prior to Synge’s writing of it. It was an important reclamation.
I was not there. Nor will I detail the other Druid shows I missed on the Aran Islands: the one with the sea swell, the one with the extra long interval so people could watch the vital Galway v. Wexford match on the telly, which Galway lost. In those days, I only travelled for work. But recent lockdowns have brought me west and west again. I have drunk the Kool-Aid of Connemara. I am at the quayside at Rossaveal as quick as you can say ‘Beckett in a field’. Where else would you put on Beckett? Why has this taken so long?
I am going to see Happy Days in a co-production between the Abbey and Company S.J. The script is in Irish, and this is another form of return in the endless over and back from authenticity to artifice of Irish art and Irishness. What would Beckett sound like in a language he could not speak, but which might be intuited in his use of English? It would be like bringing the work back to a time before it was started. It might make the text feel smaller – local in the wrong way. Also, it would be hard to understand, being in Irish and out in a field.
I wake in the morning and think that, despite the forecast, it might not rain. This is a disastrous kind of jinx to put on a day in the west, and very important not to voice aloud. But the fine weather holds and the crossing to Inis Oírr is calm. On the ferry, it is easy to spot two other people going to the play because they are also wearing black and we know each other from the theatre foyers of long ago. A guy in shorts and coloured raingear is handsome, like an actor, but he turns out to be a barrister with impressive Duolingo Irish. He tries it out as soon as we arrive, ordering a sandwich in Tigh Ned and the barman compliments him on his ‘Gaeilge deas’. The barman also says this fluency is a surprise coming from his old law lecturer, and there is a quick pulling down of masks in mutual amazement. So here we all are. On a short walk up to the arts centre later I meet Nicky Grene, the professor who taught me Synge in college, because where else would he be? This might sound a little sentimental, but Ireland has had one of the longest lockdowns in Europe. A country of casual encounters and chance recognitions has been deprived of this amiability, which is our cultural lifeblood, for a very long time.
Outside the arts centre there are sculptures of small currachs, two of them textured like aran jumpers. As we take the half-hour walk along straight boreens we look out over the many beautiful stone walls which form tiny field after tiny field – a cellular structure made of stone, or the stitches of a vast stone jumper thrown over the land. Nothing grows above shoulder height, the laden blackberry bushes along the verge are no higher than your shins.
I am too busy talking to catch a first sight of the huge cone of rough limestone flags, which is the stage set, with the actress Bríd Ní Neachtain slumped at the top. There are 35 people in the audience: some islanders and some theatre people among them. We cluster at a gap in the wall and spread out again to sit on, or against, some socially distanced rocks. We look up at her and wait. This is not a field so much as a flaggy floor, a stretch of limestone split into clints and grikes, very pleasingly like a geography lesson at school. Hard to sit on, though.
And the Irish, when Winnie wakes to the bell, is also, for me, a childhood language of schoolteachers and bizarrely optimistic television presenters, until she shifts into a register that is more personal and searching, or domestic and fretful. Until she quietly keens. It sounds as though something modest and ordinary is being said on top of this monumental mound, a wise choice given the hard gleam of the sea-reflecting sky behind her small figure and the vastness of the setting. Ní Neachtain’s performance hides its virtuosity. I do not notice how utterly musical it has been until Winnie’s song, which is a flowering and not a break in tone.
If you had no Irish, you might take the play as pure soundscape and be moved. Winnie is accompanied by the chirping of indifferent small birds. Now and then, the transcendent silence of the island opens to the sound of the sea and moves on again to allow some other distance in.
A few of the listeners are native speakers, others have good school Irish. My own is quite poor. When I was learning it, back in the 1970s, Gaeilgeoirs were always cross. If you knew a bit about the language, it was always the wrong bit, and anyway you were the wrong person to know it. This ready sense of affront has melted away in the decades since, but it seemed, at the time, a losing game.
My husband has no Irish at all. He has brought the text in English, so I can glance over to scan the page and pretend I understand Micheál Ó’Conghaile’s translation. I miss the cheery plosive of Winnie’s repeated ‘happy’, but the babbling is nicely convoluted and the chatter sounds natural and unaffected. Winnie’s repeated refrains are less brittle than usual. ‘An sean stíl’ conjures a less glamorous past than ‘Ah, the old style.’ ‘Á sea’ is ‘ah yes’ – already rendered as a sigh. For ‘Many mercies. Great mercies’ we get the sonorous and melancholy ‘Trócaire Dé. Mórthrócaire Dé.’ Perhaps Winnie has to mention God (Dé) because, in this language, there is no other source of mercy. She seems more pious in Irish and also more death-minded. The crick in her neck is a ‘camreilig’, meaning a twist or crook of the grave. There is nothing forced about the pathos and, in the lyricism, no sense of reach.
Willie, played by Raymond Keane, crawls around the mound, grunting superbly, and I think what a sentimental bastard Beckett could be, with his lost loves and long marriages. Indeed, a long marriage is, in itself, a lot like Beckett. I put my unopened umbrella back in my bag, and all my bits, and hope, as we manage ourselves upright from the stony ground, that there will be, from my husband, no grunting. It has been such a happy afternoon.
The director, Sarah Jane Scaife, who has a long connection to the island, says that every moved stone will be put back in its original position. ‘And each one of them belonging to somebody,’ Nicky says, quoting a man who knows. On the way back, a member of the audience stops to fill a recent break at the top of one of the walls. These are so carefully, so elegantly, built that my husband says, ‘You’d want to know what you were doing, there.’ But the man is a local and he really does.
On the ferry home, the producer Anne Clarke says that Medicine, the show she is working on, opened in Galway last night and the rules on audience numbers changed at the last minute so they had two hundred in the hall – nearly half its capacity – with free seating. She watched people file in and choose where to go, and they sat together, she says. They all sat together. For a tiny moment, I think she might cry. Tom Creed, a Dublin director, is working his phone. A picture has landed of Leo Varadkar, one of the main architects of the Irish lockdown, who according to the tweet, has ‘failed to commit to a plan for the Irish entertainment industry’. He is sitting on the grass – at a crowded music festival in London – picking his nose.