Review: By the Bog of Cats, Abbey Theatre

It’s time someone re-discovered the half-sunken caravan of Hester Swaine, the Traveller woman at the wild heart of Marina Carr’s play from 1998. On first look, Monica Frawley’s set for the Abbey Theatre’s new production – the first major revival in 17 years – is more north of field than the Irish Midlands: a frost-covered hollow inhabited by mysterious figures in Eskimo hoods. Rather, the recognized Parka jackets are a staple of 2010s dress, making us realise that director Selina Cartmell is literally digging out Carr’s 1990s play from the present.

Investigating the interior of the caravan through Killian Waters’s mesmeric video design, we meet the reaper-like Ghost Fancier (David Shannon, showing off his musical airs) arriving prematurely to claim Hester’s life. Conspicuously, his menace is more in the style of Garth Brooks, as Isobel Waller-Bridge’s music blends a country-Western style score with dancehall waltzes while weaving in elegiac Celtic strings to powerfully underscore the tragedy.

Besieged by omens and visions, Hester (wicked and brilliant Susan Lynch) is tortured by the mother who abandoned her as a child. She now faces betrayal by Carthage (Barry John O’Connor), the father of her child and bridegroom to the spindly Caroline Cassidy (Rachel O’Byrne). The course of revenge with all its allusions to Medea were made clear in Frawley’s scenery for that premiere production: an Olympian stage against a bundle of smoke. This time, the Bog of Cats is iced over, devoid of warmth, with Hester on the verge of being sucked into the earth.

Societal power is summed up in corrupt male authorities: the rich farmer Xavier Cassidy (Peter Gowen) and vow-breaking Father Willow (Des Nealon), their implications more sinister with our foresight of scandals beyond the Celtic Tiger. Traumatically, female characters are to succeed through the same cash-obsessed, ruthless turns of Carthage’s mother Mrs. Kilbride (Marion O’Dwyer, her broad comic strokes incredibly grotesque).

Yet expectations of beauty are railed against in Carr’s black and muck-slinging dialogue, complemented by Frawley’s costumes, which spin many a hair curler in mock preparation. Lynch’s Hester, meanwhile, is a powerfully possessed, cigar-smoking, whiskey-chugging rogue. To overturn conventions and make a man, Carthage, fully felt as an object of female desire is due to O’Connor’s excellent control and restraint.

Against the male-dominated social order is a greater feminine system governing Hester’s life: destiny, authored in part by the blind prophet Catwoman (an outlandish Bríd Ní Neachtain) clad in contemporary leopard-print. While Lynch shos Hester’s brawls with the community, the more poignant moments come in her extraordinary female relationships: waiting for her mother to return; playing with her daughter Josie (invested with great innocence by Eve Maher).

It’s a text that Cartmell knows inside out, taking advantage of any opportunity for additional textures: Sineád Wallace’s sorcerous lighting; David Bolger’s time-warping movement direction, all combining in Carr’s conjuring of ancient tensions in the landscape. The mass cultivation of land to come in the Boom years suggests a new outcome: the Bog of Cats is as dispossessed as Hester Swaine, and if society won’t have her, the earth certainly will.

By the Bog of Cats is playing the Abbey Theatre until 12 September. For more information and tickets, see Abbey Theatre website. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.