BWW Interview: Director Joe O'Byrne Returns to Irish Rep this Summer with THE ARAN ISLANDS
As part of their 2017 summer season, Irish Repertory Theatre, is presenting the US premiere of THE ARAN ISLANDS, directed by Joe O' Byrne. Returning to Irish Rep after 16 years, O'Byrne is looking forward to sharing Irish playwright, John Millington Synge's work with New York audiences and is grateful to this organization for making it possible to share the work of Irish artists. This classic work celebrates the art of storytelling and challenges audiences to step outside their own cultures for a brief time and immerse themselves in a whole new world of discovery and enlightenment.
BroadwayWorld had the incredible opportunity to speak with O'Byrne about his return to Irish Rep; the work of John Millington Synge; and how the themes and lessons are still applicable today.
What's the most exciting part about returning to Irish Rep?
It has been quite a while since I was last here, which was in 2001, with Oscar Wilde's DorIan Gray, and it is exciting to see the theatre now running even better than before! The renovation has created a beautiful main space and the remodeled studio that we are housed in is a lovely, intimate space. I am delighted and very grateful to Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O'Reilly, who continue to produce exciting work that brings New York audiences plays from the Irish repertoire, as well as premieres.
Why it is so important to keep the mission of Irish Rep alive and thriving in a place like New York City?
Theatre is a very core part of Irish cultural life, and New York is a huge theatre city. It is not often that Irish work can make is across the Atlantic -- there are so many hurdles, both financial and logistical. We have been generously supported by Culture Ireland, but without a theatre like Irish Rep we would not have been able to bring this work over to New York. A lot of planning goes into a venture like this and it requires a theatre with a strong mission and commitment to Irish work to make it happen.
Can you talk about how you've been influenced by Synge's work and why THE ARAN ISLANDS is such compelling material?
Synge's work is at the core of modern Irish theatre, and in his short life - he died at the age of 37 of Hodgkin's lymphoma - he created perfectly formed plays. These works were based on the life that he discovered in the west of Ireland - particularly on the Aran Islands. It was Yeats who suggested to him that he go to the Aran Islands, and he made his first trip there in 1898, and would go on to spend most of the following summers there. He kept journals while there which he gathered into the book The Aran Islands, completed by 1901, but wasn't published until 1907, the year of his death. While on the islands, he discovered all the stories that would form the backbone of his plays. But it is particularly the storytellers he encountered there that influenced him greatly, bringing this Dublin Anglo-Irish Protestant close to this strange world where music and the oral tradition of storytelling were the principal entertainment. Synge harnessed this material into brilliant plays that throb with the life he encountered. Beckett was heavily influenced by Synge, and the characters and the colorful and humorous dialogue that he reproduced in his plays.
The Aran Islands is a forgotten book, and hopefully this production will bring the brilliance of the prose and the keen and forensic observation of the life he encountered to the attention of readers once again.
How does Brendan Conroy bring the story and landscape to life?
Brendan plays Synge and all the other characters that Synge encountered on his visits to the islands. At the center of this is the storytelling, and Brendan brings to life, for example, a man by the name of Pat Dirane, who was the principal storyteller that Synge encountered, and this is one of the achievements of the piece -- rescuing this storyteller from oblivion, for in his own way he was a great artist, and provided much of the raw material for Synge's plays. Over the course of the show Brendan will also bring to life the life of islanders, their customs, the funerals and keening, as well as big events such as the evictions that were a regular occurrence.
It is a big undertaking for an actor to sustain the range and intensity required of all this material, and Brendan is an actor with huge experience behind him, and he is able to deliver the intensity of some of the material yet at the same time create the humor of many of the segments and stories.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the performances?
I hope audiences will gain insight into the life of an island community that has to a degree vanished. Synge went there as an outsider and immersed himself in the life of the people, and the character Synge is the guide for the audience into this world. I hope they will come away with an understanding and awareness of the oral tradition of storytelling as it existed then, and its importance today. They will also gain insight into Synge, because his time spent on the Aran Islands was his writing apprenticeship, and for anyone who knows his plays, it will provide fascinating insight into how he created those plays. But he wasn't just a literary tourist, he did immerse himself in the world of the islanders, and it is the deep sympathy he feels for them that allowed him to create the wonderful characters that exist in his plays. It is a one man play, but in fact it is an act of storytelling, and the form of the show takes its cue from the oral tradition - one man and his story of the Aran Islanders.
Any lessons that still apply to society today?
When Synge visited the Aran Islands, he was a cultured Dublin Anglo-Irish Protestant, and the Aran Islands were remote and a long journey away in those times. He uses the word 'primitive' to describe their world, and 'civilized' to describe the world of cities. But he uses the word 'civilized' in an ironic way, and by primitive he means something more like exotic. But he feels the islanders have so much to offer the so-called civilized world, and he wanted to learn from them by immersing himself in their world. In those days, cultures were far apart and today, we are in a world where people are always on the move, bringing their cultures with them, and these cultures are different and strange and might be considered 'primitive' in the pejorative sense. If anything, The Aran Islands is a plea for understanding of a different culture, and in the story of his own immersion into this world, he is a guide to cultural cross-fertilization.
The ARAN ISLANDS runs through July 23rd at Irish Rep's W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit: https://irishrep.org/show/2016-2017-season/the-aran-islands/
Photo of Brendan Conroy; Credit: Carol Rosegg