Wednesday 25 April 2018

Theatre: A mesmerising triumph

Chilling performance: Susan Lynch as Hester in The Bog of Cats.
Chilling performance: Susan Lynch as Hester in The Bog of Cats.
Heartbreakingly effective: Des Keogh and Derry Power in The Quiet Land

Emer O'Kelly

It takes a lot to out-Euripides Euripides. But the combination of Marina Carr and Selina Cartmell (with some able assistance from Susan Duffy) has managed it. Carr's By the Bog of Cats was premiered at the Abbey 17 years ago, and it left people reeling.

But this re-interpretation in an Irish setting of the Medea story has been given a level of intensity and horror at the same theatre by Selina Cartmell's new production that more than endorses the director's reputation for mastery of unflinching horror.

Hester Swane is mad to begin with. An outsider driven by rage, all she wants, she believes, is the comfort and dedication of a home life with a "good man", i.e., one whose body is in tune with hers.

But there is a darkness about Hester; even in a society where ugliness is all-pervasive, she is feared and despised, abandoned by a mother who long ago disappeared into a bottle, her nurture vilely unnatural and spoken of only by a blind local woman who wanders the Bog of Cats in search of mice.

And when Hester is, as she sees it, betrayed by the man who is the father of her own child, she is driven over the precipice at which she has been crouched all her life.

Her rage becomes concentrated on Caroline Cassidy, the girl Carthage Kilbride is about to marry. The human Carthage becomes the centre of her destruction, as the ancient city of that name became the centre of the destruction for its queen, Dido. The consequences are terrible for all concerned, with a monstrous irony that makes Hester triumphant, even as she becomes her own victim in the most hideous form of all.

Cartmell has turned Hester's bog into an icy moonscape (designed by Monica Frawley), her caravan a pit in its hollows. All the characters stride its wasted heights, save Hester herself, who never rises beyond the rim, waiting until all are dragged down with her. Susan Lynch's wild performance in the central role is as chilling as its setting, a thing that turns fire into darkness, with the rest of the cast playing to it without ever creating a deference barrier.

Barry John O'Connor is hapless and desperate by turns as Carthage, with Marion O'Dwyer wildly comic as his classically possessive mother. (She is just below caricature, however, and will need to keep her performance in check. ) Brid Ni Neachtain makes a creepily glamorous Catwoman, with Peter Gowen vicious and barely controlled as the manipulative Xavier Cassidy, and Rachel O'Byrne as the doomed bride, his daughter Caroline.

Jane Brennan plays the neighbour Monica Murray, the only note of life and colour in this barren emotional landscape where everything vile is larger than life: she carries off the pivotal cameo to perfection.

Niall Wright is the ghost of Hester's murdered brother, and two eight-years-olds, Elodie Devins and Eve Maher, share the role of Hester's small daughter.

The cast is completed by David Shannon, Rob Walsh and Des Nealon.

Overall, By the Bog of Cats is as harrowing as it is mesmerising.

* * *

RADIO plays do not often work on stage: a good radio play is necessarily one-dimensional and static, qualities that are death on stage. But there are exceptions, and Malachy McKenna's The Quiet Land is one. A gentle elegy that also manages to be a ragingly angry protest at a savagely new phenomenon in Irish society, the play is a conversation between two old farmers, neighbours in an isolated spot.

Eamonn is newly released from hospital; he limps on his broken hip, and still wears a bandage on the deep wound in his head, both inflicted in a vicious beating at the hands of thugs who broke into his farmhouse. Nashee carries a bill hook on his walks; walks which become longer daily because Nashee is too fearful to go home for fear of suffering the same fate for as little gain as Eamonn's kitchen yielded for the thugs: a couple of hundred euro turf money.

The "quiet land" is a terrible irony, McKenna tells us: these sub-human thugs operate silently. Their nasty trade tramples on dignity and decency and rob their victims of all trust in their fellow human beings.

Two quietly epic performances from Des Keogh and Derry Power in the lunchtime production at Bewley's Café Theatre at Powerscourt Centre in Dublin are heartbreakingly effective. Bairbre Ni Chaoimh directs in a set by Andrew Murray lit by Colm Maher with costumes by Miriam Duffy.

Don't miss it.

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