Michael Coveney - All sing together

Theatre - An inspired revival draws magic from tales of island grief, writes Michael Coveney

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The highlight of this year's Edinburgh International Festival was the first ever performance on one day of the complete plays of John Mil-lington Synge, in a production by Garry Hynes for the Galway-based Druid Theatre Company she founded 30 years ago.

Synge (pronounced "sing") wrote six plays in the last six years of his life after being despatched to the Aran Islands by W B Yeats with the famous injunction to "live there as if you were one of the people themselves" and to report a life "that has never found expression".

In Francis O'Connor's brilliantly adaptable set of blue-washed walls, brown peat floor, two bare standing planks and random apertures, it was possible to see how all of these wonderful indoor/ outdoor plays share themes of melancholy, unfulfilled love, a desire for escape and the shadow of death.

This may have come as a surprise to those who, not unreasonably, think of the old Synge-song as a repository of "Oirish" sentimentality. That response is the legacy of a style of acting that plays up the "bejasus, begorra" aspects of Synge's language. Druid, however, mitigates the obvious cadences and reveals a muscular structure in the poetic syntax.

The bell of doom sounds first in Riders to the Sea, an astonishing lamentation in which Marie Mullen, as the habitually bereaved Maurya - she's lost five, soon to be six, sons to the feckless ocean - prepares for the worst, her face etched in grief. Her neighbours beat their hands against the wall in unison. Her last son is borne in, dead on a bier.

Three plays later, in The Shadow of the Glen, a farmer's corpse comes alive while his widow is assailed by a younger rival and saved by a grandiloquent stranger. And in the extraordinary The Well of the Saints - last seen in Edinburgh ten years ago - an old blind couple rescind the miracle of their restored vision because they cannot stand the sight of each other. Beckett owes everything to this play.

In The Well, old Martin Doul (Eamon Morrissey), seeing at last, pushes his still blind wife out of the way as he heads for an attractive villager who conforms to his private view of his beloved. He is repulsed but, in a most remarkable scene, launches a romantic spiel of seduction anyway.

This, in Synge terms, is really from the heart. The handsome writer's love life was unhappy and misdirected. His obsession with the young actress Molly Allgood, the first Pegeen Mike in Playboy of the Western World and inspiration for the doomed, hieratic tale of Deirdre of the Sorrows, was vitiated first by his social position - Synge was a child of the Protestant ascendancy, Molly a good Catholic girl - and then by a rapid decline in his health.

Deirdre has not been performed in living memory, and closes the cycle on a note of unexpected tragic grandeur, partly due to the composed, lyrical performance of a bright newcomer, Gemma Reeves, as the heroine earmarked by the High King of Ulster as his wife; and partly because the playwright's language achieves a new plane of harsh poeticism. Where might Synge have gone after this amazing play?

Except that his achievement was prescribed by his own mortality. The play ends with Deirdre's suicide next to the graves of her lover and his brothers. She, at least, had seven years of happiness. Happiness is short-lived for most of Synge's characters. Pegeen Mike (starched, lean widow material in Catherine Walsh's cascade of pinched vowels) has lost her chance of redemption, the chance that Christy Mahon wins when he is exposed as a fraudulent parricide.

And Christy himself - in a trajectory brilliantly described by Aaron Monaghan - is someone who comes of age in his own fan-tasy before having his good luck withdrawn by the truth. This Playboy is the best I have ever seen, darkly comic, full of rolling drunkenness after Kate Cassidy's wake, cruel and nasty at the same time.

Michael Billington has acclaimed Marie Mullen as the greatest Irish actress since Siobhan McKenna. This is a huge compliment that I cannot begin to refute. She sets the ball rolling magnificently in Riders and, after a definitive Widow Quin in Playboy, sets a tone of weird solemnity as the nurse in Deirdre.

This great occasion - one of the greatest in the history of the festival - does have an afterlife when the cycle plays this month in the old stone fort of Dun Conchuir on Inis Meain itself. I visited this location last May. The atmosphere is magical, the acoustics perfect. It could be a cracker of an outing, especially when the light falls on the old kingdom of Deirdre's sorrows.

The Synge Cycle will be performed on Inis Meain on 9 and 11 September. Telephone 00 353 91 568 660 or see www.druidsynge.com for booking and further details

Michael Portillo is away