Monday 24 September 2018

The monstrous ordinary

A scene from On Raftery's Hill
A scene from On Raftery's Hill

Katy Hayes

When Marina Carr's On Raftery's Hill was first staged 18 years ago in a Druid/Royal Court production, it caused a bit of a stink. The play is about a father who has bullied his son into mental illness, has sustained a decades-long incestuous relationship with his eldest daughter, and tortures his farm animals for sadistic pleasure. And then he goes one step further in depravity. At the time, it was felt that Carr's play was an exaggeration; there was a general sense of discomfort at this bleak exposure of Irish life. On Raftery's Hill seemed way over the top.

Since then, various incest stories that have come to public attention. It's clear that Carr's play was simply telling us something we didn't want to know: society always likes to look the other way when faced with domestic sexual assault.

This demanding and gritty text receives a spellbinding revival from director Caitríona McLaughlin. The key to the success of this interpretation is how ordinary Lorcan Cranitch is as the father, Red - he is just a rough-hewn farmer with a flinty temper. Maeve Fitzgerald catches the older daughter Dinah's agonising complicity. Zara Devlin as the younger girl, Sorrel, "the one perfect thing in this house", changes movingly from teenage optimism to destroyed woman in a flash. Marie Mullen plays the delusional grandmother Shalome with fine-tuned flourish. Peter Coonan ramps up the intensity as the son Ded, who suffers from an mental illness and is so afraid of his father he lives in the cow shed. Peter Gowen, as the neighbour Isaac, brings some outside moral judgment into this skewed household. His declaration that "monsters make themselves", lets nobody off the hook. Kwaku Fortune as Sorrel's fiancé Dara is the handsome symbol of hope. Every one of these performances is top-notch.

Superb design by Joanna Parker incorporates a number of rocky pools through which the characters splash; this family ship is about to sink. Parker's subtle video projection on the back wall indicates all the women are drowning. There needs to be an image of poor Ded on the back wall, too, because this poison patriarch is crushing his son as thoroughly as his daughters. Composer and sound designer Carl Kennedy gives Ded's tragic fiddle playing a symphonic undertow.

The poetic quality and sheer intelligence of Carr's lines lift this out of the mire of dirty realism and into the realm of genius. The tone of the writing - intense and tragic in so many ways - is given plenty of leavening: by the grandmother's wandering and by neighbour Isaac's fondness for his pet cat Rosie. McLaughlin's direction handles these tonal shifts astutely. The play is so rich in detail and imagery that many features only detonate long after you leave the theatre. This is tough stuff; an assault scene at the end of Act 1 is difficult to watch. But this is what a National Theatre at its best achieves: it recreates with elegant profundity the experience and suffering of its people. Bravo.

 

Book it now

1 MINDING FRANKIE

Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, May 8–12

Return of this adaptation of Maeve Binchy’s novel about a single man doing his best to raise a baby, amid interference from a social worker. Features two super performances from Clare Barrett and Steve Blount.

2 AUTUMN ROYAL

Project Arts Centre, Dublin, May 8–12

Kevin Barry’s debut play won the Stewart Parker Award. This fine Everyman production returns to Dublin, before a nationwide victory lap, including Longford, Newbridge, Bray, Limerick, Cavan and Roscommon.

3 THE SWORD & THE SAND

Lyric Theatre, Belfast, May 9–27

Rawlife Theatre Company present this new comedy by Pearse Elliott about a political refugee, Aziz, who seeks shelter in Belfast but gets dragged into a life of criminal mischief. West Belfast meets the Middle-East.

A classical statement on workers' rights

English National Ballet presents this hugely memorable revamp of the classic 19th-century ballet as part of Dublin Dance Festival. Traditionally, the ballet's strongest flavour is pastoral romanticism; here, choreographer and director Akram Khan creates an industrialised and globalised Giselle for our times.

In Act 1, Giselle congregates with her fellow workers, shut out from their factory by a huge wall. The choreography has a graceful, mechanical aspect, with formation lines and repetitive movements. A recurring motif of dancers flitting across the stage suggests a populace fleeing. Many simple folk steps and motifs are absorbed into a high balletic style.

Much of the story is the same as the original. Upper-class Albrecht disguises himself as a peasant to woo Giselle. Set design by Tim Yip features a giant industrial wall, which pushes forwards and back, and rotates. Albrecht's fiancée, Bathilde, is one of the rich factory owners. She lures Albrecht back to her world of privilege, and Giselle dies of a broken heart. Elaborate costumes for the rich contrast with the simplicity of the factory workers' garments.

Act 2 traditionally features a group of vengeful jilted brides; here, we encounter a platoon of tragic factory women who have been worked to death. They dance on pointe, armed with bamboo sticks; their toes and their sticks are weapons. Erina Takahashi makes a wonderful Giselle; James Streeter is a sweet and romantic Albrecht; Oscar Chacon is striking as the second suitor, Hilarion. Composition and sound design by Vincenzo Lamagna add industrial electronic audio and an occasional Indian flavour, undercutting the romanticism of the original score.

Khan's version propels Giselle into the contemporary world of exploitative garment factories. It places the predicament of the worker at the centre of the ballet: a manual labourer has only the wealth of their body to offer, much the same as a dancer.

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