The Tony Award-winning director and founder of the Druid Theatre talks to Marilyn Cole Lownes about bringing J.M. Synge’s plays to New York.
Squinting slightly in the noonday sun, Garry Hynes sits down to breakfast at a pavement café on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in July.
Having previously abandoned her coffee and croissants to be photographed for The New York Times, the founder and artistic director of the famed Druid Theatre in Ireland returns to the table and apologetically explains, “I’m on a bit of a tight schedule at the moment.”
A ‘bit tight’ is an understatement.
The unpretentious, unflappable Ms. Hynes has come to New York to direct not one, but six plays by John Millington Synge, in “DruidSynge,” all to be presented in a single sitting, seven times, at the Lincoln Center Festival of 2006. “DruidSynge” premiered at the 2005 Galway Arts Festival, opening at that city’ s T own Hall, followed by performances in Dublin and at the Edinburgh Festival, before concluding its 2005 run with performances on the Aran island of Inis Mealin in the unique open-air setting of Dun Chonchur, the walled fortress.
Hailed by the Irish Times as “one of the greatest achievements in the history of Irish theatre,” and described by The New York Times as “breathtaking,” “DruidSynge” is not, however, the first production that has brought Garry personal acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 1998 she was the first woman ever to win a T ony A ward as Best Director for Druid’ s Broadway production of play- wright Martin McDonagh’ s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and the following year she received a Tony nomination for her direction of McDonagh’ s Lonesome West.
When Garry founded the Druid Theatre Company in Galway in 1975 it was the first Irish professional company to be established outside Dublin. It came to the forefront of Irish theatre in the 1980’s with productions of plays by, amongst others, M.J. Molloy, Dion Boucicault, and J.M. Synge.
It was, in particular, the production of Synge’ s classic, The Playboy of the Western World, that has defined Druid Theatre as one of the world’s foremost interpreters of the giants of Irish theatre.
Today, as she sips her coffee and takes a drag on a Marlboro cigarette, Garry recalls, “When I originally directed Playboy of the Western World thirty years ago, my perception was that it was an old play that had nothing to do with the present. But when we started rehearsals for it, we all thought, ‘No, this is actually a rather wonderful play, and we must do it again if this company survives.’”
When asked about her beginnings, Garry responds, “I was born in Ballaghadreen but I grew up in Galway and when I went to the University College of Galway, I became involved in the drama society there, and started directing plays.
“There wasn’t anyone in my family who was involved in the theatre. I saw a few amateur plays when I was growing up, but I can’t think of anything that happened or anybody in particular who inspired me; it all came from within.”
But what about your love and obvious understanding of literature?
“I was a voracious reader and I still am,” she exclaims. “I remember wanting to read even before I could read.
“My father Oliver Hynes was an educator. He was originally just a teacher, a very good one, but then he was promoted to be in charge of education for the entire area. He was always an inspirational teacher. He was my big personal supporter, always coming here for the T ony A wards. My mother, Carmel, was a homemaker.
“My parents were inspirations to me in the sense that I admire the life they led, I admire them as people, and I admire the freedom they gave me to be myself.”
Wondering at the power of Synge, I quote Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley on Playboy of the Western World. “It’s a masterpiece,” said Shanley. “It was the first time that anyone had written in the vernacular about Irish peasants; they sounded like poets. It was really the birth of modern sensibility.”
Describing Playboy’ s emotional impact, Shanley elaborates, “It’ s really about freeing oneself. The first time I saw the play it affected me very deeply because it spoke to me in such a way that I felt it was okay to be me; that what really matters is how you feel about yourself, and not be concerned about how others perceive you.
“When I watched the film My Left Foot years later, I actually burst into tears when Synge was mentioned.”
Garry considers Shanley’ s observations. “Yes, I think he’s got it right. For me the power is in Playboy’s story about a lonely and isolated woman like Pegeen, and how she becomes awakened to a new sense of life and love by the arrival of the playboy,” she chuckles. “Plus I love the sheer exuberance and vitality of the language.”
I ask Garry if any plays or writing have ever moved her to tears.
“I can’t think of any at this moment,” she smiles and replies, “I don‘t want to force anything. But,” she adds, “there is a liberation about great art, and, tears or no tears, that’s what one felt at the time.”
As down to earth and pragmatic as she seems, Garry, as an artistic director, has not only shown passion and vision, but also great courage.
As a former artistic director of The Abbey, how does she feel about Fiach MacConghail’ s appointment?
“Fiach MacConghail is a wonderful man and I believe he’s got the ability and vision to do the job really well. The Abbey has been through troubled times in recent years but Fiach is the man to put all those things right.”
One of MacConghail’s ambitions is to showcase the plays of Martin McDonagh. Hynes is responsible for discovering McDonagh.
“I had been artistic director at the Abbey from 1991 and when I returned to be director of Druid, I asked to read the plays that had come into Druid in the previous six months,” recalls Garry.
“The Beauty Queen of Leenane was one of them. I was fascinated by the play from the very beginning. It had been rejected by the Abbey but I just knew at once that Martin McDonagh was a terrific writer for the theatre. That enthusiasm was also shared by the actors, so then we hoped that we could stage the play in a way that would transmit that enthusiasm to our audience.”
Acclaim for Garry’s direction of The Beauty Queen of Leenane is now legendary. It propelled Martin McDonagh to a success paralleled only by William Shakespeare, the only other artist to have had four of his plays on the London stage at the same time.
“I was really lucky to be picked up by Garry,” Martin McDonagh recalls. “ And I will tell you why – unlike so many directors she was welcoming and inclusive of me, the writer, in the rehearsal room from the very first moment. Besides, I really like the Druid company.
“She respected me as an artist. And that is because she, too, is a proper artist. She isn’t afraid to have confidence in others and to show some respect for them.”
Asked if she had found similarities between J.M. Synge and Martin McDonagh, Garry replies, “Yes, I think there are. Firstly, in the sense that Martin, in his Irish plays, is writing about a community within which he does not live, but that he feels very much a part of.”
Garry amplifies, “And I think Synge was doing much the same thing. Also, obviously there are clear associations between McDonagh’ s Lonesome W est and Synge’ s Playboy of the W estern W orld, plus there is the shortening facility with language that both Synge and Martin have, so unquestionably there are resonances between both writers.”
When McDonagh is told that Garry compares him to Synge, he laughs and says, “Yes, but I’m much more handsome than him,” then thoughtfully, “I suppose, yes, in the sense we both are taking a liberty writing about these people. Although Synge was born in Ireland he came from a wealthy background, very different to those people he wrote about. And with me, well, I write about the Irish but I was born in England.”
And how does Martin feel about Playboy of the Western World?
“I am always surprised by how modern Playboy of the Western World is; how dark and fitting and revolutionary it is; no wonder people found it so shocking at the time. Yet it always seems so fresh.”
Garry Hynes weighs the question of why McDonagh’ s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, currently on Broadway, was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. How come it didn’t originate at or transfer to the Royal Court? Was it considered too violent?
“As far as the play being too violent for the Royal Court I think that that’s a mischaracterization. I’m not going to speak for the Royal Court. But it’s very strange to hear that the Royal Court wouldn’t dare to put on Lieutenant of Inishmore when it has pioneered some of the most powerful and dangerous plays that have been in the British theatre in the last fifty years.
“As far as Druid is concerned, we have done three productions of plays by Martin over a period of four or five years. The match of Druid and Martin was a very good one for both Martin and Druid.”
What was the inspiration for “DruidSynge”? All six of Synge’ s plays in a single sitting?
“Basically Synge had a very short writing life and it seemed to me there is a very strong spine going through all of the plays and it was an opportunity to look at him as a writer in his entirety,” explains Garry.
How difficult has it been to keep Druid at the top?
“It was my ambition to start a theatre company in Galway, to live and make work in the west of Ireland with my colleagues,” says Garry, “We’ve managed to continue through difficult times when finance was a problem, and there were other challenges all along the way, but it has continued to make sense as a project for all of us. So as long as that happens to be the case, then we will continue to do it.
“As far as Irish writers being great, I think the fact that there have been two languages in Ireland for a very long time; there has obviously been a shared energy between those two languages.”
Why do the Irish love to talk?
“Perhaps because we were such poor illiterate people for so long, and talk is cheap, we became very good at it,” Garry decides.
Asked which writers have inspired her, Garry replies, “Obviously Synge has inspired me, and Tom Murphy, because he writes about people I know and understand. He has written some of the greatest plays in the English language. I feel very privileged to have worked with him.
“ I’m about to produce a new play by Stuart Carolan which I’m very much looking forward to. Marina Carr is another writer I admire; I like her bravura.
“You open the page of a new play with a sense of anticipation and it’s either realized or disappointed. Usually, with just the first few pages, you know if you want to read any more.
“When you are reading plays you are always thinking about certain actors for each role; the combination of the role on the page and your knowledge of its rela- tionship to certain actors.
“I’m lucky; I’ve worked with some of the best actors in the world; a long relationship with Marie Mullen and Mick Lally who founded the company with me and who are both in the ‘DruidSynge.’”
Has she any other passions?
“I like food, wine, and I like to cook and to eat.
“I like life.” She smiles. ♦