The Synge Cycle, King's Theatre, Edinburgh

The wild west of Ireland

Later, there's the moment when Pegeen Mike vigorously fans the flames with bellows before branding the Playboy of the Western World with a burning turf sod. And in the last scene of Deirdre of the Sorrows, from the ancient saga of Cuchulain, after the dramatic disintegration of the set, a scarlet blaze envelops the city.

There could surely be no more authentic a version of these windows on to Ireland's wild west than this fiery interpretation presented by Galway's Druid Theatre Company.

Having spent 25 years honing her readings of these very different dramas - in turn wild, tragic, farcical, always unpredictable - Garry Hynes has captured the infinite variety of Synge's plots and the fantastic and yet ordinary characters who people them.

In Francis O'Connor's coolly versatile set, you step through a door into a detailed world of life, words and incident against the backdrop of a coastal cottage, a roadside, a mountainous spot, a country pub, a wood and a shack. Each setting requires minimal adjustment as the plays progress, their sequence carefully arranged for maximum dramatic impact.

The tragic beauty of Riders to the Sea, the touching message of The Well of the Saints, in which the richly imagined visions of the old blind couple bring them more sunshine than the all-seeing harsh world through which they wander, and the dark fairy-tale quality of Deirdre of the Sorrows are hauntingly conjured.

In the fun poked at the clergy in The Tinker's Wedding, the layers of desperation of the wife whose husband feigns death in the not-so-comic The Shadow of the Glen and in the savage realism of the Playboy, you are swept bracingly along by the wide-ranging situations and emotions Synge was exploring in these gems.

Led by the indefatigable Marie Mullan and Eamon Morrissey, the stalwart Druid Company seems as fresh at the devastating end of the eight-hour marathon as at its bleak beginning.

Each actor plays his or her part with terrific commitment, capturing the phrases, rhythms and cadences of Synge's language. The writing comes across as fresh and exuberant, its muscularity matched by the litheness of the performers, particularly Aaron Monaghan in the role, among others, of the romancing, romping Playboy.

It feels as though we're trudging the roads and sheep-glens of Mayo, Wicklow and Aran with Synge. But as well as seeing through his lens the despair, frustration, resignation and quirkiness he witnessed and photographed in rural communities, we are offered another perspective by Hynes and her company. The picture of these peasant people, cramped by their physical environment and stunted vision, is given an inspired slant with glimpses of a motley collection of characters as if reflected in a distorting mirror.

In conveying the "fine madness" of Playboy, Hynes successfully balances the violence and cruelty of the villagers with warmth and humour, the satirical treatment of its subject matter, especially religious attitudes, complemented by the romance of illusion.

In Synge's last play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, on the other hand, Hynes applies the lightest of touch to this rich tale of a girl groomed to be the bride of the crusty old king of Ulster.

In a production that is both wonderfully simple, timeless and evocative you sense a genuine moment of release when the girl (Gemma Reeves) escapes from the confines of her isolated imprisonment and elopes with her young lover.

If Sam Jackson's underscoring sometimes obliterates the words in Deirdre, if the quicksilver Irish brogue sometimes defeated this listener, and if it wasn't always easy to focus on each of the six shows compressed into a single day, the Druid Synge Cycle was still an immensely rewarding and intriguing experience.

To Saturday (0131-473 2000)

Comments