Saturday 26 May 2018

Carr's towering revival stirs up torment

A triumphant renewal does the Abbey's 'national duty'

Maeve Fitzgerald (Dinah Raftery) and Lorcan Cranitch (Red Raftery)
Maeve Fitzgerald (Dinah Raftery) and Lorcan Cranitch (Red Raftery)
Marie Mullen (Shalome Raftery)
Peter Coonan as Ded Raftery in On Raftery's Hill

Emer O'Kelly

In 1998, Ireland was convulsed by reports of a civil court claim from a 27-year-old woman called Sophia McColgan.

In 1995, her father had been gaoled for a total of 238 years for crimes against her and her brothers and sister when they were small children.

And the authorities she was now suing had looked the other way, despite evidence of repeated anal rape, rape with instruments, injecting animal serum into his daughters' vaginas, deliberately breaking the hands of his small son, and other crimes too hideous to describe... besides the incessant vicious beatings. The children's mother had denied it was happening.

Official Ireland was mad as hell. In the tired mantra that is still the favourite response when it is publicly shamed, they said "never again".

And yet we continue to let them away with it in so many areas of life...

But in 2000, playwright Marina Carr did what artists do: she wrote a play about incest and unspeakable cruelty. It sickened audiences and reminded them of the reality that lay behind so many files left lying on official Ireland's desks.

And now the Abbey has staged a new production of On Raftery's Hill, 18 years after its shattering premiere, and 14 years after Sophia McColgan's father was released from gaol - he served only nine years of the 238-year sentence he had received.

When I saw the Druid production of the play, I wrote: "Red Raftery lives on a hill that carries his family name; once lush and profitable farmland, he has turned it into an actual and symbolic sewer, the fields running with slurry and polluted by the rotting corpses of the farm animals he ritually slaughters with his widowed friend Isaac Dunn.

"But the real pollution is inside the house: and that is the story Carr tells us, showing us the living corpses that Raftery has already destroyed, and the still fluttering life of the last little butterfly that he will impale for the completion of his black work. And she tells it with a mastery that is as convincing as it is sickening."

Those lines stand today.

The new production is, I would judge, even more harrowing than the original, with director Caitriona McLaughlin giving steady, disgusted weight to the "normality" of life in the Raftery household, with daughter Dinah, approaching 40 and frequently sharing her father's bed with weary acquiescence on the understanding that he will "leave Sorrel alone".

Sorrel, at 18, is the only clean thing in the house, dimly aware of the horror but as yet unpolluted. The women's brother, Ded, is well-named: driven insane by his father, he lives in the shed, filthy and half starved, but refusing with what's left of human dignity to enter the house polluted by his father's obscene brutality.

And Red Raftery's mother, equally insane in a world of clean memory and graciousness, wanders in and out in search of that old innocence.

And Sorrel? Loved as she is, she cannot escape: at the end of the play, Red Raftery's blackness has enveloped her as the final shadows fall.

The play needs towering performances; and under McLaughlin's direction it gets them, with Maeve Fitzgerald dourly dominating in her acceptance of hell as Dinah, and Marie Mullen as old Mrs Raftery with almost a glowing aura as she tries to escape into innocence.

Peter Coonan raves pathetically and convincingly as the lost Ded; and, of course, there is a frighteningly foul Raftery, threatening even in repose from Lorcan Cranitch. Zara Devlin is an appealing Sorrel, and there's stalwart back-up from Peter Gowen as Isaac and Kwaku Fortune as Sorrel's boyfriend.

Joanna Parker's set design seems a little awkward for the actors at times, but with its pools of stagnant water through which they must splash, it does convey a sense of reeking isolation. Paul Keogan's lighting is sombre and sensitive to every mood.

This production ticks all the boxes for the Abbey: no gimmicks, but a triumphant revival of a serious play by an acclaimed author that is horribly relevant to what is sometimes called "the national debate".

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