Carolina Performing Arts brought Ireland’s acclaimed Druid Theatre to Memorial Hall on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus on Oct. 29th and 30th for a two-night run that had promised fair to be one of the highlights of its remarkable season. The troupe from Galway, in the west of Ireland, is famous for, among other things, its staging of the complete cycle of plays by the early 20th century Irish playwright John Millington Synge, and two of these were presented back to back at Carolina.
The evening opened with the brief one-act, The Shadow of the Glen, in which the older husband of a younger wife tricks her into believing he is dead, then rises up and runs her off when he hears her planning a future with his savings and a younger man. (Her sense of combined bewilderment and liberation, followed by horror, recalls 19th century feminist Kate Chopin's story in which an unhappy wife is freed by news of her husband's death — news that turns out to be false.) The dark, almost malicious, humor of the play is as tonic as a cup of bitter coffee; and when the woman, chased by her husband, steps out the door with the tramp who's just happened to be on the scene for the scheme, you feel the fresh wind of morning, evoked by the tramp's poetic words, blowing at their backs.
The problem was, you couldn't hear all of those poetic words. The actors were so powerful, and the staging so clear, that you could follow the story well enough; but when they turned away from the proscenium arch, it was as if the set were absorbing the sound. I have never previously experienced anything like this, and don't know what to make of it. It wasn't a problem with the brogue, or voice projection, or rapidity of speech — when the actors were facing the audience, every word was perfectly clear. It was very frustrating, and many of the (somewhat small) audience did not return after intermission.
The problem remained, and was even more exasperating, during Synge's masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World. This mordant tale is founded on heroes, and how we make them through story — and the punishing disappointments that follow when the story proves false. It is bitingly funny; sarcastic, and loving at once, and full of wonderful lines. But again, they were often not audible. Many more of the audience slipped away between scenes.
That the play remained engaging and the plot twists understandable even bereft of language is a testament to the excellence of the company and its director Garry Hynes; but this was not a satisfying, let alone thrilling, evening at the theater. Perhaps Carolina Performing Arts should use another hall when presenting plays.