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Deirdre of the Sorrows by J M Synge
Directed and Designed by Sam Shammas
Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
Wednesday 28th April - Sunday 16th May 1999, 7.45pm

"...the plangent music of Synge’s text [is] delivered in the proper manner. Director/designer Sam Shammas’s studio production makes the most of its small stage. It’s good to savour Synge at such close quarters, but the reason to go is a rapt and beautiful performance by Catherine Harvey as Deirdre."
Patrick Carnegy, The Spectator, 8th May 1999

"There’s a confident sweep to Synge’s lyrical writing, passionately celebrating love, wilfulness and youth that is very difficult to resist. The set, designed by Shammas, is simple yet impressive: for a scene in the woods, ropes hang from the ceiling as trees, from which the carefree lovers can swing; later these are tied together to form an ominous arch over the doomed pair. The costumes too are handsome; in her pearls and brocades and with her creamy skin and appropriately burnished hair, Catherine Harvey makes a fine, impish Deirdre. Justin Brett [makes a] slightly swaggering Naisi. Their gentle rapport adds sheen to the lighter moments."
Maddy Costa, Time Out, 12th May 1999

"This production, by Sam Shammas, is the first London revival for more than 80 years - a must for all those interested in Irish drama, but also an absorbing piece of theatre in its own right. Despite a playing time of barely 80 minutes and a cast of only six, the performance establishes a strong epic style, thanks in part to the superb Celtic costumes, designed by the director, and her three evocative settings. Catherine Harvey plays Deirdre with touching directness. She has been hidden away by the ageing King Conchubor - portrayed with firm dignity by John O'Byrne... There are also effective performances by Helen Dickens, Barry Cooper and Brendan Fleming as court officials. "
John Thaxter, The Stage, 20th May 1999

"An atmospheric rendering of the death-obsessed final work by J M Synge... At its best it rises to the heights of poetic lyricism that are reminiscent of Wordsworth's nature-worshipping poetry. The best performance is by Barry Cooper as the king's spy, Owen. Cooper gets right inside the character, conveying his darkly brooding nature and is eaten up inside by love. The staging is imaginative, with ropes standing in for trees and the woodland settings being conjured up by gusting winds and chirping birds. It has a mythical feel to it. "
David Smith, Irish Post, 22nd May 1999

catherine harvey as deirdre (in the dressing room)

The man Yeats described as ‘the greatest dramatic genius of Ireland’ was born at Rathfarnham on the outskirts of Dublin in 1871, his father dying only a year after the playwright’s birth. Both parents came from evangelical backgrounds, indeed a number of the Synge extended family had become churchmen over the years. Because of poor health, Synge’s schooling was irregular and a great deal of his time was spent wandering the woods with a cousin, collecting bird’s eggs and learning from nature.

Although his brothers followed careers thought suitable for their family and their class (estate management, medical missions), and his sister made a ‘suitable’ marriage, it was left to John as the youngest to break from that tradition. After reading Darwin, his first rebellion was against the faith of his family, and he stopped church attendance in his early teens much to his mother’s distress. Synge went on to reject the social and political allegiances of his family, becoming a nationalist.

His time at Trinity College Dublin was not a happy one and he left with a poor degree, although he won prizes in Irish and Hebrew. He went on briefly to study music in Germany, then on to Paris to pursue writing. His thoughts constantly returned to Ireland, however, and he made his first visit to the Aran Islands, a place from which he was to derive a great deal of influence, in 1898. It was here that he discovered the plots for four of his six plays, and here that he learned to write the peasant dialect of his dramatic work.

The Abbey Theatre, which opened in Dublin in 1904, aimed to revive the Irish language, study its existing literature, and dispel the time-honoured dramatic depiction of the Irish as dissolute and sentimental. It was to provide a vital platform for J M Synge’s emerging work. Yeats was the prime mover behind its creation, and wrote later that "two things brought us victory: a friend gave us a theatre [Miss A E Horniman, a wealthy Englishwoman], and we found a strange man of genius, John Synge." His first play, The Shadow of the Glen (produced with Yeat’s The King’s Threshold in 1903, before the Abbey was available), aroused fierce controversy because of the aspersions it seemed to cast on the fidelity of Irish wives. It was followed in 1904 by Riders to the Sea, The Well of the Saints (1905), The Playboy of the Western World (1907; the play causing riots because of its unflinching, unflattering portrait of the Irish) and The Tinker’s Wedding (1908). Since 1897 Synge had been suffering with Hodgkin’s disease, and Deirdre of the Sorrows was completed as he was dying. It was given its first performance in 1910, a year after his death, with his bereaved fiancée Molly Allgood taking the role of Deirdre.

justin brett helps complete the distinctive set

Deirdre of the Sorrows has been adapted for this production, and the plot of the adaptation runs as follows. Set in Ireland just before the dawn of the first millennium, J M Synge’s three act play re-tells the legend of Deirdre, a young girl who (it is prophesied) will ruin the Son of Usna and bring about the destruction of the great city of Emain.

When her father dies, Deirdre is brought up by her nurse, Lavarcham, with money provided by the King of Ulster, Conchubor. As Deirdre approaches maturity, it becomes clear that the elderly Conchubor wants to be more than a surrogate father. He rails against the onset of age and urges her to be a reminder of youth for him: he insists he will marry Deirdre and take her back with him to Emain to be his queen.

Despite the best efforts of her protectors (who are mindful of the prophecies) to keep them apart, Deirdre falls in love with Naisi the Son of Usna. Realising the danger they are in, and optimistic that they can build an untroubled life elsewhere, they journey from Ireland to the mainland and spend seven glorious years together in Alban.

Then Fergus, an emissary sent from Conchubor, tracks them down and offers them the chance to return to Emain in peace. Unbeknown to him, another of Conchubor’s men (the enigmatic spy Owen who is in love with Deirdre) warns Deirdre against returning to Emain. However, she makes up her own mind. She overhears a conversation between Fergus and Naisi in which her lover expresses concern that he may one day awake to find his love for Deirdre diminished. The seeds of doubt are sown, and she resolves to return with Naisi to Emain. On hearing this, Owen proclaims that he will be the first to die for her sake, and takes his own life.

The King asks them to wait for him in a tent just outside the city. On arrival there, Deirdre and Naisi discover an open grave in the ground, and then realise that the tent is surrounded by the King’s men. Naisi is convinced it has been dug for him, and urges her to live on without grief in his absence, but Deirdre assures him that she could never live on without him. She is deeply troubled by his insistence that she should take another lover if he were to die. Would that mean that he would do likewise if she were to die? Conchubor arrives as they argue, and despite the hostility between the King and Naisi, Deirdre urges her lover to listen to what Conchubor has to say. Naisi lowers his guard, and, even as he offers him a gesture of conciliation, Conchubor takes advantage of the moment to mortally wound the younger man.

Fergus returns to see that the King has broken the oath of peace it was his duty to relay to the couple in Alban. A man of fierce principle, he sets the city of Emain ablaze in a rage of indignance. He comes across Deirdre and Conchubor as the old King is attempting to forcefully remove her to be his queen. Fergus prevents him, and vows to defeat him. Meanwhile, Deirdre is inconsolable, yet eerily calm. She can do nothing but quietly lament the passing of the joys they shared all too briefly. She stabs herself, and dies next to his body. The whole land seems to darken as she does so. Even the flames of Emain flicker and die. In the darkness, the blind and lonely figure of Conchubor cries out to Lavarcham to help him away.

helen dickens prepares for performance

Helen Dickens

Barry Cooper

John O'Byrne

Brendan Fleming

Catherine Harvey

Justin Brett

Sam Shammas

Adam Carree

Barry Cooper

Alison de Burgh

Linda James

Sam Shammas Productions

Sam Shammas

brendan fleming (as fergus) relaxes in the interval

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