The Irish Rep’s award-winning season continues with its tenth online production since the shutdown, “The Aran Islands,” which demonstrates the glory and the beauty of Irish storytelling three times over. Available through March 28, the 90-minute video, filmed both on location and on a Dublin stage, showcases the extraordinary Irish actor Brendan Conroy. Conroy presents the rich language by writer J.M. Synge and the riveting folk tales by the people Synge visited in the windswept, rocky Aran Islands at the end of the nineteenth century.
Joe O’Byrne’s adaptation of Synge’s century-old published journal allows us to hear the exquisite rhythms in the prose of the writer, folklorist and co-founder of Dublin’s famed Abbey Theater who is best known now as the playwright of “The Playboy of the Western World.” Conroy as Synge vividly describes the land off the coast of Ireland and the isolated and “doomed” people who inhabit it. “I can see nothing anywhere but a mass of wet rock, a strip of surf, and then a tumult of waves.” These are waves that “have made it impossible for clumsy, foolhardy, or timid men to live on these islands.”
But “Aran Islands” really takes flight when the Aran Islanders start talking for themselves – talking in tales – after, as Synge puts it, their “endless talk of pigs and cattle falls to the whisper of men who are telling stories in a haunted house.”
These stories are impossible to summarize; they travel along simultaneously familiar, unexpected and outlandish roads. A story that begins as one of young courtship turns into a story of a shipwreck, which becomes a story of paying off a debt with five pounds of one’s flesh, which turns into a test of a wife’s fidelity, which evolves into not one but two different murders by being thrown off a cliff into the sea, although only one of the victims stays dead. That’s all one tale.told by an old, old man. Conroy is terrific in doing old men. Then he shifts the top half of his coat jacket onto his head, turning it into a shawl, and himself into an old woman delivering a “fierce rhapsody…waving her withered arms with extraordinary rage” and “vindictive fury” at the end of a long, arresting, very far from mythic story about an eviction of a neighbor by the British authorities.
“‘This man is my own son,’ she said; ‘it is I that ought to know him. He is the first ruffian in the whole big world.’
And then Conroy is back to being Synge: “On these islands the women live only for their children, and it is hard to estimate the power of the impulse that made this old woman stand out and curse her son. In the fury of her speech I seem to look again into the strangely reticent temperament of the islanders, and to feel the passionate spirit that expresses itself, at odd moments only, with magnificent words and gestures.”
“Aran Islands,” not only at odd moments, offers words, gestures and expressions, that are indeed magnificent.