‘On Raftery’s Hill’ review: a striking and pummelling production

Marina Carr’s bleak topical tragedy is like the fresh jolt of a recurring nightmare

Marie Mullen as the  ‘brilliantly delusional grandmother’, Shalome in On Raftery’s Hill

Marie Mullen as the ‘brilliantly delusional grandmother’, Shalome in On Raftery’s Hill

 

On Raftery's Hill
★★★★

Abbey Theatre, Dublin
 

“Ud’s so horrible ud has to be true,” an 18-year-old girl responds to a tale of unimaginable brutality involving her father, a knife and one of his cows. It says something that this story, one of many disturbing reports delivered in the roughened dialect of Marina Carr’s bleak play from 2000, still pales in comparison to what we will later witness in the home of the Rafterys. To an audience in 2018, when believing stories of abuse and violation has again become a political flashpoint, On Raftery’s Hill seems unsettlingly topical, like the fresh jolt of a recurring nightmare.

Where did this tragedy begin, the play wonders of its midlands family, and by proxy the nation, and is it destined to continue forever?

On that point, the Abbey Theatre’s new production is riveting if hardly encouraging. Of another story doing the rounds between this outwardly respectable hillside farm and the valley below, involving a father who impregnated his daughter, a mystified neighbour remembers that Zeus and his wife Hera were brother and sister. “Is ud any wonder the state of the nation,” says Peter Gowen’s amusingly bluff Isaac, “and them for ancestry.”

In the Raftery home, humans are significantly less godly than animal, driven by unholy urges. Lorcan Cranitch’s fearsome and bestial father Red doesn’t speak so much as growl, although for such a model of toxic masculinity, his performance is surprisingly muted, obscured by a beard and awkward sight lines. As his son, Peter Coonan’s pitiable Ded is more vivid, exiled to the cow shed, howling griefs like a wounded dog. But the story belongs to its women, three generations – with a tellingly absent mother – trapped together under the same roof.

There’s nothing otherworldly in this depiction of suffocation, sexual violence and complicity in ugly secrets

Marie Mullen’s brilliantly delusional grandmother, Shalome, is eternally trying to escape from this home (either to Kinnegar or into her fantasies). Maeve Fitzgerald’s hollowed-out and haunted Dinah is resigned to die there, buried with her lost opportunities and awful secrets. Zara Devlin’s innocent Sorrel, on the cusp of marriage to a small farmer in the valley (an amiable and unassuming Kwaku Fortune), meanwhile fears she will never return to it. That the farm is wretched with the stench of rotting animal carcasses, just as Thebes was plagued for harbouring its own unnatural act, suggests a deeper pathology, though. Home is where the dirt is.

Submerging

In director Caitríona McLaughlin’s striking and pummelling production, this home also appears to be sinking. Joanna Parker’s set, a kitchen space leading to corroded metal fixtures made iridescent by Paul Keogan’s lights, is lined with moats of water and shingle – as though the Shannon had burst inside. (How it scaled these heights, though, in a play so attentive to the hierarchy of hill and valley, is beyond me.) Still, that corresponds with an elegant video backdrop of each female character’s face, submerging slowly into water as gathering horrors weigh them down.

It is a stylish accentuation for a play that is otherwise so deliberately shorn of poetry – unlike most of Carr’s other original works, there’s nothing otherworldly in this depiction of suffocation, sexual violence and complicity in ugly secrets.

What the play aspires to, and what this unflinching production mostly achieves, is a sense of catharsis worthy of the theatre’s own complicated Greek ancestry. It drags you into the depths of dysfunction, without compromise or consolation, so that we might emerge, eventually, feeling lighter.

Until May 12th