Marina Carr has superbly reworked the Greek drama about the infanticidal Medea, transposing her from a mythical Greek heroine into the crude, rugged, wild Hester Swane - an Irish traveller living on the side of a bog. As in Medea, emotions run deep, and the difference between love and hate, hope and despair, grief and revenge, reduces until each act becomes a terrifying amalgamation. Hester, like her beloved “Bog of Cats”, is both treacherous and bewitching.
The play begins at dusk with Hester (Holly Hunter), dragging the corpse of a black swan, who she played with as a child, across the frozen landscape back to her caravan to bury. We later learn that the swan acted as a type of surrogate mother to Hester, and so the trail of red blood left on the stage by Hester’s dragging of the dead swan acts as a constant reminder of Hester’s abandonment by her mother, when she was just a child. It is this abandonment that explains Hester’s actions, a mixture of jealousy that her brother Joseph Swane (Adam Best) had a deeper relationship with her mother, and fear because everyone she cares for eventually abandons her. “Love is only for fools and children,” she vehemently declares.
Hester is raging after being abandoned by Carthage Kilbridge (Gordon McDonald), her ex- lover and the father of her daughter. Today, Carthage is to marry his young bride, and Hester has been told not only must she leave the house he has built for her, but that she must also leave her beloved bog. But how can Hester leave, she still believes that her mother will one day return to the bog to look for her. With Hester in such dark spirits one can hardly expect the wedding day to pass quietly, and sure enough, arson, threats and eventually murder blot the occasion.
Holly Hunter gives a powerful and mesmerising performance. There is a wild abandonment to her portrayal of Hester, as she begins her bitter descent to annihilation. Hunter dominates the stage, a baneful bag of resentment and forceful will; it is hard to recall a stronger portrayal of menacing female aggression. Hunter’s small frame bristles with energy and her face reveals the emotions that sweep over Hester, dominating her actions. When the terrible deed of infanticide is finally committed, Hunter’s cry of rage and despair is shattering. In the final scene, when Hester literally exposes her heart, Hunter’s silent whimper of “Mum, Mum”, moved me to tears. The last time I had been moved by such a strong portrayal of female earthiness and power was when Diana Rigg played Mother Courage at the National! This is a performance that must be seen.
Marina Carr has not only written an outstanding dark psychological drama, but she has also created some hilarious dark comedy. At times it felt as if I was watching a new play by Martin McDonagh, as many of the characters could easily have been created by his magical pen: Mrs Kilbridge (Barbara Brennan), the fowl mouthed grandmother who has a snipers tongue - willing to fire any offensive round of insults at every opportunity; the doddering old priest Fr Willow (Patrick Waldron), who rambles on incoherently about ex-girlfriends and whose pyjama bottoms poke out the bottom of his trousers; and the Catwoman (Brid Brennan), a blind seer who wears a dirty coat of moggy skins and sups her wine out of a saucer.
Dominic Cooke’s production moves from dark comedy to dark psychological drama with ease, and the barren frozen landscape upon which runs a trail of red blood designed by Hildegard Bechtler sets the scene for this modern day telling of Medea, a story of alienation, fear and desertion.
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This production is the British premiere of Marina Carr’s reworking of the Greek tragedy ‘Medea’ by Euripides.
Set in the bleak, wild and dangerous boglands of Ireland, the plot revolves around a traveller, Hester Swane (Holly Hunter). Deserted by her mother when a child and despised by many in the local community, Hester is a tormented soul who takes comfort and solace from nature and her child, (commendably played on this occasion by Ellie Flynn-Watterson). But Hester is no frail or diffident character – she’s a fighter, ready to take on anyone or anything. As the curtain goes up, her suffering and despair deepen with the imminent marriage of Carthage, her ex-lover and father of her child, to a younger woman. The source of the irreversible conflict between Carthage and Hester is the guilt of a dark and terrible secret, which can only be resolved in the gruesome tragedy we experience in the final act.
Hildegard Bechtler’s stark design aptly reflects the bleak landscape of the bogland setting, reinforces Hester’s isolation and despair, and focuses attention on the polished and well-directed playing.
Holly Hunter delivers an energetic and admirable performance, and is ably supported by a confident and thoughtful cast. I particularly enjoyed Barbara Brennan as Carthage’s mother – penny pinching, vain, crudely blunt and not a little frightening. I suspect many of the audience, like me, saw relatives from their past in this portrayal. Gordon MacDonald (as Carthage) and Trevor Cooper (as Xavier Cassidy) also turn-in strong and powerful performances.
This is a story that can be read on many levels. Certainly it’s about loss, desertion and identity, as well as isolation and despair. It’s also concerned with the conflict between itinerants and the settled community - the fear of outsiders or those with a different way of life. But money, ownership and power also figure prominently in a complex, moving and thought-provoking play.
8 Jan 2005
By the Bog of Cats, playing at the Wyndhams Theatre on The Charring Cross Road, is a new play by the Irish playwright Marina Carr that seeks to rework one of the most famous of the Athenian tragedies, Medea. Set in the Midlands of Ireland, beside the eponymous bog, the play charts the tragic final twenty four hours of the life of Hester Swane (played by Holly Hunter) as she confronts the wedding day of her long time love, and father of her beloved daughter Josie, to Caroline Cassidy (Denise Gough), a girl young enough to be Swane’s daughter.
The play opens just before dawn, with Swane burying her talismanic black swan and chancing upon a Ghost Fancier, both of which are portents of the death and disaster that are going to follow. As we are introduced to Swane’s neighbour and the eccentric Catwoman, we build a picture of her life. Early days born to a mother who was forever absent; the meeting of her love Carthage Kilbride; the murdering of her brother with Carthage; and the more recent attempts by both Kilbride and Cassidy senior to drive her from the village – all these incidents are revealed to us through the narrative as the play gathers pace. Interwoven into this retrospective of Swane’s life is the innocence of Josie Swane, Hester and Carthage’s daughter. And whilst Hester’s life falls apart, she is determined that her daughter shall not suffer as she herself suffered as a child. With the first act setting the scene and introducing the characters that will define the outcome of the play, the second act accelerates us towards the inevitable and tragic ending foretold by the events at dawn that day.
The second act opens with some brief levity as the wedding feast of Carthage and Caroline is in progress. Terrific comic vignettes are provided by Barbara Brennan as Mrs Kilbride, the mother of the groom, and Father Willow (Patrick Waldron) the officiating priest, before the jolly scenes are interrupted by the arrival of Hester Swane dressed bride-like, in virginal white, a dress that had been given to her by the groom at today’s wedding. She is determined not to be driven from the village by these people and is equally determined to keep custody of her daughter. Like her Greek equivalent Medea, she feels wronged and betrayed and vows to take from Carthage Kilbride whatever she can. Thus, she burns down the home that he and Caroline are to share, she torches his livestock, and, in an act designed to spare their daughter from the misery of a childhood without her mother, such as Hester Swane herself had endured, takes their daughter with her to death.
This play is great in its original form, and this modern, Irish reworking is enjoyable, powerful and moving. The acting across the ensemble is generally strong, particularly from young Kate Costello who was playing Josie Swane the night I watched. Of course, all the talk and focus is not on the play, the direction, the bleak set design or the cast members, but on Holly Hunter’s portrayal of Hester Swane. Here, once again, we have a Hollywood actress treading the now well-worn transatlantic path from silver screen to the West End for whatever reason. She is not bad in the role (although she is light-years from Fiona Shaw’s recent Medea), and certainly portrays the position of being an outsider well, but her Irish-Texan drawl of an accent grates after only a few minutes and too often it is a relief when she leaves the stage. There is no doubt that the presence of American celebrity on the stage in London swells the ranks of the ticket buying public, but I do sometimes wonder whether the fame of the star colours the casting decisions – the last time I was in this theatre was to see the dreadful attempt at West End acting by Madonna.
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Unmissable"; PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "not Greek drama brought up to date; it is high-class hokum hoping to gain some tragic glamour by association." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A load of preposterous blarney." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "More darkness and pain, not to mention terror and pity, are needed. To add to the play’s abundant imagery, Holly Hunter was asked to create a mountain — and came up with a hill." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Hunter is, without doubt, a real actress....But acting skills can only take one so far: what I could never believe was that Hunter was a creature of the Irish bogs."