Arts: One Company makes three a crowd...

Synge's 'Shadow' puts Yeats in the shade: Paul Taylor on an RSC trilogy

Three plays in an hour and a quarter? Sounds more like something you'd associate with the Reduced Shakespeare Company than with the Royal Shakespeare Company. It's intensity, of course, not duration that matters where a theatrical experience is concerned and so, in prospect, a trio of powerful Irish one-acters - two by JM Synge, the other by WB Yeats - looked like a highly tempting proposition from the RSC. But, in the event, despite many local pleasures, these pieces fail to work as the kind of triptych where the whole lends added meaning to the parts.

A proportion of the blame lies with the staging, which gives rise to some dubious interpretative decisions. The audience sits in banks on both sides of the long central acting area. Director John Crowley has tried to make a virtue of the fact that the transitions from one play to another have to happen in full view by presenting the three plays in a seamless flow. So, at the end of Riders to the Sea - Synge's bleak Lorca-like focus on the desolation of a family of women who learn that they have now lost all their menfolk to the waves - Stella McCusker's grim, heart-breaking mother suddenly slaps the corpse of the son she has been laying out with such ritualistic dignity; the actor springs up and, to loud whoops and a jaunty communal dance, the action segues into the mischievous black comedy of the same author's The Shadow of the Glen.

You can see the reasoning behind this. Shadow begins with a most unorthodox wake (just an isolated woman and the body of her elderly unloving husband, who is only pretending to be dead to test her fidelity). So why not modulate into this with an abrupt gleeful wake for a playfully resurrected man? Well, one objection is that, for me, the effect felt like a desecration and betrayal of the tragic mood so austerely established in Riders. Second, the woman's bitter, curmudgeonly husband (Lalor Roddy), popping into bed at the start and lying doggo, made a point of letting us see that this was a con trick, which robbed the play of the surprise element built into it by Synge. It's rather as though Hermione were to tip the audience the wink that she wasn't really just an inert statue at the start of the great coming-to-life scene in The Winter's Tale.

Mairead McKinley is excellent in both plays, as the more intense and confrontational of the daughters in Riders and as the wife, driven first to pained shrewishness by her mean-minded spouse and then into the arms of a shy, visiting tramp with the poetic gift of the gab. People who enjoy the comedy of current wunderkind Martin McDonagh will find here the wonderful genuine article he ruthlessly imitates. But Shadow and Riders combined prove to be a far from ideal preparation for the final piece, Yeats's Purgatory - a passionate, starkly abstract demonstration of sin recycling itself through the generations. It's a great play, like some compressed, ghastly and ghostly negation of the redemption-over-time in Shakespeare's late romances. But it made more of an impact when it was given as part of a recent Yeats season at the little Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead. Here, it's in the right Company but the wrong company.

The Other Place, RSC, Stratford. Booking: 01789 295623

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