Benedict Nightingale, ‘The Sort of Renown That Would Make Any Troupe Green’,
in The NY Times (22 Feb., 1998)

Source: NY York Times / Art & Leisure [online] - accessed 9-11-2004.

London - One morning back in 1975, Garry Hynes was sitting with her friend Marie Mullen in a coffee shop in the small town of Galway on the western coast of Ireland. They had just left the local university and, with the breezy optimism of youth, planned to start the first fully professional theater company anywhere in Ireland outside Dublin. But they had to choose a name for it or the bank would not open an account.

‘We were getting desperate,’ recalled Ms. Hynes. ‘All sorts of names were coming up, none of which we liked. Word Then I looked down at my Irish Times, Sculptor and it was running the cartoon strip Garry Asterix the Gaul, and I knew the Hynes, in Gauls had druids, and the druids were her office also the ancient pagan priests of at the Ireland, and they had power in the Druid community. It made sense, so we said, Theater ‘We’ll call the company Druid now and Company. think of a better name in a few months’ time.’ ‘Derek Speirs for But the name stuck and the priestlike The new power grew and continues to grow.

Indeed, Druid makes its New York debut on Thursday, not only with a reputation approaching that of the Abbey Theater in Dublin, which Ms. Hynes briefly ran in the 1990’s, but with an internationally acclaimed play by a young dramatist whom many rate as the company’s most exciting discovery to date. And who is staging Martin McDonagh’s black comedy The Beauty Queen of Leenane, presented by the Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea? Why, Garry Hynes, still Druid’s artistic director. And who plays the angry spinster of the title? Marie Mullen, still one of Ms. Hynes’s best friends and one of the company’s regular performers.

Ms. Hynes, 44, has become perhaps her nation’s most respected director and, with her production of Arthur Miller’s new play, Mr. Peter’s Connections, that will bring Peter Falk to the Signature Theater in late April, she seems likely to become well known in America too. That is a striking phenomenon for several reasons.

First, the west of Ireland of the 1970’s was a pretty patriarchal place, and, since Ms. Hynes is slightly built and little more than 5 feet tall, as well as energetic, she was and still is patronized for her sex and her size.

‘I still get called ‘a stick of dynamite’ or ‘pint-sized dynamo,’ stuff like that,’ she said during a recent conversation in London. ‘Actually, I was too busy to notice there was anything unusual about being a woman director until the early 1980’s, when I looked around the professional theater and realized there weren’t many of us. You have to make more of a case for yourself than any man.’

Second, she came almost accidentally to stage direction. Her school-teacher father and her mother sometimes took her to amateur productions but had no great interest in the theater, and drama was not on the curriculum at her convent school.

When she majored in history at University College in Galway, she joined the drama society in the same serendipitous spirit (‘I was a person of short-lived enthusiasms’) with which she had taken a course in boat-building. When she and her fellow freshmen were asked to classify themselves as prospective actors or directors, she chose direction, feeling that, even though she didn’t know quite what it was, it sounded more congenial than standing up and pretending to be someone else.

Undeterred by her ignorance (‘I do recall wondering how to get people to move round without bumping into each other’), Ms. Hynes decided to replace the one-act play she was first asked to direct with a far more challenging piece she found while browsing in the library. That was Brian Friel’s Loves of Cass McGuire and, auspiciously, it had her fellow freshman, Marie Mullen, in the lead. The next year she was running the drama society and three years later taking her production of Paul Foster’s Elizabeth I to the finals of the all-Ireland amateur drama festival in Dublin.

By then, she had graduated in history and was nominally studying for an advanced diploma in education. But since she had been too preoccupied with directing plays to attend a single lecture, she decided not to take the final exam and in 1975 left the university, wanting only to create a company in Galway: ‘I was 22, loved doing plays, had the simplicity of youth, knew that the town had no professional theater and thought, ‘Why not?’

Her first productions, including a 1975 staging of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, came out of a Ivan Kynel/Druid Theater ‘cauldron of Company intensity,’ said Tony O’Dalaigh, - now director of the Dublin Theater Festival. ‘They had a strong company feel, a great sense of determination, dedication and belief.’

‘I know I won’t have to worry about my box office when the Druid visits Dublin,’ Mr. O’Dalaigh said. ‘Its impact on Ireland has been tremendous and on the Irish theater inspirational.’ Again and again he has seen examples of what, for him, is Ms. Hynes’s style: giving old or neglected plays new life, drawing unlooked-for subtleties from her actors, and finding almost too much depth and darkness in the work she tackles sculptor-like, attempting to discover the essential play within the rock of the text.

Certainly the Irish theater has been going through a renaissance of late. That is largely thanks to Druid itself, the other theater companies it has encouraged and the talent it has fostered. One key event was the company’s acquisition of its own theater, a converted tea warehouse in Galway in 1979. Another was a successful visit to the 1980 Edinburgh Festival with Island Protected with Glass, a play about Elizabethan Ireland that Ms. Hynes and the company evolved together. Yet another was the transfer to London in 1983 of a revival of Playboy that proved, in Ms. Hynes’s words, ‘the play isn’t some ornate fable of some distant western isle, but is dirty, grubby, monstrous and very real.’

Nica Burns, now a senior executive with the Stoll Moss theater chain in England, brought Playboy to the Donmar, the Covent Garden playhouse she was then running. ‘Garry is a very intelligent woman with a great interest in history and politics,’ she said of Ms. Hynes. ‘Her work has a deep understanding of Ireland and this extraordinary sense of national identity. She also has the ability to hear the music of a play and orchestrate it so that the rhythm builds and you’re swept along in a rush of emotion. It’s as if she were conducting a concerto.’

Many critics, both in Ireland and London, have felt those strengths were evident in what already looks like another key event in Druid’s story, its discovery and promotion of Mr. McDonagh.

That tale began in 1994, when Ms. Hynes returned to the company after three years as artistic director at the Abbey Theater in Dublin. It had not been an easy absence. She was the fifth person since 1985 to have held what is widely regarded as the most thankless post in the Irish theater and, like her predecessors, she found it tough to please a board of trustees, a large body of shareholders with built-in rights to influence artistic policy, and the Dublin critics.

Her revival of O’Casey’s Plough and the Stars did not appeal to the conservatives, as much because the cast had shaven heads as because the style was unusually somber. Even a sellout production of O’Neill’s Iceman Cometh, with Brian Dennehy as Hickey, was regarded by some as too heavy and long. One headline, ‘Abbey Play Not That Bad,’ still makes Ms. Hynes laugh but did not hugely amuse her employers.

In her last year at the Abbey she put on no less than 11 new plays, and achieved average audiences of more than 65 percent. Her determination to be ‘bold, stimulating and provocative’ seemed to be paying off. But a parting of the ways was inevitable. ‘I had become very frustrated,’ she said, ‘and convinced that the theater needed fundamental structural reform. When that didn’t happen, I saw no point staying on.’

So Ms. Hynes returned to Druid, where the post of artistic director happened to be vacant, since Maeliosa Stafford, the actor who had taken over from her, had just moved to Australia. Right away, she asked to see the scripts that had recently arrived in the mail and was struck by a quirky tragicomedy called A Skull in Connemara. Who had written it? An unperformed writer called McDonagh. She asked if he had submitted anything else, and the answer was, yes, The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

She was convinced she had found a genuine writer, but, given the plays’ assured portrait of the Irish outback, assumed he was 40 or 50. The man she met was 24, a Londoner who had spent much of his childhood in his family’s place of origin, the west of Ireland.

‘Suddenly it made sense,’ she said. ‘Martin is perched on the cusp of two cultures, and that’s what makes him extraordinarily interesting. He’s brought his social and cultural inheritance to his work, and he’s looked at it from the outside and spun it round his contemporary experience. He’s Irish, but he’s also a South London lad, tough and impatient with the past. He feels no need to kneel at his heritage’s shrine.’

Both plays turned out to be part of a trilogy, set in contemporary Connemara, that also included ‘The Lonesome West.’ Ms. Hynes acquired and eventually staged all three in Galway, London and Sydney, Australia, but it was The Beauty Queen with which she chose to open Galway’s new municipal theater in 1996. That was a bold choice (‘Like all new plays, a gamble and a bit scary’), but within moments of the start of the first preview she said she could feel the spectators’ response to Mr. McDonagh’s study of the destructive symbiosis of a middle-aged woman and her demanding old mother.

The prolific Mr. McDonagh has also had a play called The Cripple of Inishmaan, the first part of yet another trilogy, performed with great success recently at the National Theater in London. (An American production of it, directed by Jerry Zaks, begins previews on March 17 at the Joseph Papp Public Theater and opens on April 7.) But it is Ms. Hynes’s presentation of The Beauty Queen, a Druid Theater Company/ Royal Court Theater production, that has received most critical praise. Many have felt it typifies her and Druid’s work, which has always been simple, direct and immediate, and is getting more so.

‘If I went back and looked at my early productions,’ Ms. Hynes said, ‘I’d find them impossibly overblown, baroque. You must keep saying, ‘What can I do without?’ The more you pare down, the nearer you get to the play. In the case of The Beauty Queen, it’s especially necessary because its world is not lovely and poetic but one of emotional and physical poverty. The only things we put onstage are the things the characters actually need because those are the only things they have.’

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