By Karen Isaacs
Off the west coast of Ireland lies three desolate but inhabited islands – the Aran Islands. These islands are similar in look as the Ring of Kerry, rocky and seemingly barren. They are inhabited by residents leading a sheltered and hard life.
There’s three islands, from the largest Inishmore, to Inshimann and finally the smallest, Inisheer. Each requires a boat trip of 30 plus minutes across often choppy seas.
When we visited Inisheer, the 30 minute trip seemed like forever as waves came over the deck. But the voyage was worth it to see the austere landscape and the ancient ruins.
In 1898, the author John Millington Synge went to the Aran Islands, visiting all three and keeping journals that became a book. At the time he went, the Islanders spoke mainly Gaelic, a language that under British rule had been outlawed on the mainland; yet, many islanders also spoke some English. Synge went in part to learn Gaelic.
Later, after his visits (he spent four summers on the islands), he wrote that he considered this time to be a major influence on his works which include The Playboy of the Western World and others.
The Irish Rep is presenting The Aran Islands: A Performance on Screen, an adaptation of Synge’s journals by Joe O’Byrne who also directed. Brendan Conroy plays Synge telling us about his journeys and the people he met. The Rep presented an on-stage version in 2017.
You can sit back and Synge’s lyrical language will wash over you, spoken by the wonderful Brendan Conroy as you imagine the dwellings and the smell of peat and the ocean, while also seeing the windswept islands.
Co-Motion Media has combined theater and film techniques to give stunning images of the islands and their people. Some scenes are as if in a theater with the audience’s attention focused on Conroy, the words and the acting. At other times, the words are heard over incredible views of the islands themselves. This play has been reimagined for digital presentation, transporting audiences to a distant world.
This all-new production was filmed in Ireland in early 2021 during the COVID-19 lockdown and made specifically for digital viewing. The Aran Islands: A Performance on Screenwas filmed primarily at The New Theatrein Dublin, with additional footage from the Aran Islands and Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre.
During the course of the play — two acts with a 10 minute intermission – we hear of Synge’s experiences and his impressions.
But more so, Conroy interprets the stories that residents tell Synge. The folk lore and the history of these islands. Like all good Irish stories, there is a bit of mysticism in them.
Director O’Byrne and the Co-Motion Media staff have given this piece movement – not just the movement of the filmed scenes of the landscape, but movement within the more staged pieces. Helping with this is the excellent lighting by Conleth White and original music by Kieran Duddy.
The Aran Islands is available at IrishRep.org through Sunday, March 28.
At the end, Synge writes “Sometimes this I feel a perfect home or resting place. On some days I feel this island as a perfect home and resting place; on other days I feel that I am a waif among the people.”
Visit IrishRep.org to access this absorbing production.