By the Bog of Cats review: a warped family drama

Marina Carr’s bitter stretch of the Irish midlands is a sunken place full of ghosts and vengeance – will anyone make it out alive?

Venue: Abbey Theatre

Date Reviewed: August 20th, 2015

Website: abbeytheatre.ie

Phone: 018787222

Thu, Aug 20, 2015, 17:11

   

By the Bog of Cats

Abbey Theatre, Dublin

***

 

Hester Swane is having a bad day. Her lover, Carthage Kilbride, is due to marry another woman, just as she is being driven from her home, her only connection to her long-lost mother. Worse, we first meet her dragging the body of a black swan, her fated alter ego, before she encounters a reaper-like “ghost fancier”, who has shown up slightly early. The auguries couldn’t be worse if Hester’s life was inspired by the tragedy of Medea. Which, in Marina Carr’s 1998 play, it is.

Carr’s vision of By the Bog of Cats, a bitter stretch of the Irish midlands, is of a sunken and frozen place, stalked by ghosts, grotesques and vengeful characters steeped in myth. In the first major revival of the play since its Abbey debut, director Selina Cartmell stresses those otherworldly qualities. The bog, in Monica Frawley’s striking design, beautifully lit by Sinéad Wallace, is frost-white, sloping down like a crater in the moon.

That allows Cartmell to play fast and loose with the gravity of her references. The Ghost Fancier (David Shannon), now a singing cowboy, comes trailed by country and western music, as though fresh from a David Lynch movie. Like an intact caravan that sinks down into the set, or the hyperstylised glimpses of Kilian Waters’s impressive video design, all ideas of place become surreal and distended.

Nearly 20 years on, though, Carr’s play resembles a more specific satire: the venal Kilbride family, marrying into a “few lumpy auld acres” of land, epitomise the crude beginnings of the Celtic Tiger years. Here, Marion O’Dwyer, playing gloriously against type, makes for a deliciously coarse Mrs Kilbride, crowing about the cost of her shoes, devoted to her son (Barry John O’Connor): the ancient Greek-Irish mammy.

It’s the supporting characters who tend to pull focus: Peter Gowen as the rapacious father of the bride, or Bríd Ní Neachtain decked out in fur and enormous shades as the seer Catwoman, who sees Hester as her “match in witchery”.

Susan Lynch gives it her all, but Hester is a less interesting character by comparison, a model of the defiant outsider complaining of being “discarded” and “eradicated”. In the structurally unwieldy second act, a succession of arguments and recriminations, even those video sequences abandon her, as though shouted down. The most striking image is of seven-year-old Josie, Hester’s daughter at the lip of the stage, silently watching the scene.

Played on opening night by the assured Eve Maher (who alternates with Elodie Devins), Josie also finds herself moulded by others, but with the good sense to lampoon and dismiss them; in this warped family drama, hers seems the most tragic inheritance. She’s not alone: even a minor character dreams of being an astronaut, “but me father wants me to work on the bog”.

Destiny and family here have an similarly oppressive pull: they hold you fast and suck you down.

Until September 12

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