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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
By the Bog of Cats
by Lizzie Loveridge

Catwoman: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Young Dunne: Well I want to be an astronaut but me dad wants me to work on the bog.
By the Bog of Cats
Holly Hunter as Hester Swane
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
The well respected and talented actress Holly Hunter's appearance on the London stage causes more than the usual stir. By the Bog of Cats, written by Marina Carr and produced in Dublin in 1998, is a play full of Irish mysticism and folklore loosely based on the legend of Medea, which Miss Hunter has played in the United States in regional theatre. It is as if the play is designed to appeal to the sentiment of Americans with Irish ancestry who are susceptible to romantic tales of life in the peat bog.

Hester Swane (Holly Hunter) lives in a caravan on the edge of an Irish bog. She has a child, Josie Kilbride (Kate Costello/Ellie Flynn-Watterson/Chloe O'Sullivan) by Carthage Kilbride (Gordon Mac Donald) who is now marrying Caroline Cassidy (Denise Gough). Kilbride and Caroline want to take Josie on their honeymoon (strains of Medea meets Miss Saigon/Mme Butterfly?) The bog is a mysterious and superstitious place, full of enigmatic people, the ghosts of previous generations and those that can see them. There is Catwoman (Brid Brennan), an old and revered witch who drinks milk by lapping it out of a saucer and who is rumoured to bring bad luck if she is not invited to celebrations.

By the Bog of Cats is not all doom and gloom in the gloamin'. The wedding scene allows the characterisation of Kilbride's ridiculous mother (Barbara Brennan) whose social pretension and posturing made me laugh. The child Josie and the part written for her with its candid observation is appealing without being mawkish and overly sentimental. Hunter herself is gutsy and quirky with good stage presence. The opening scene sees her, a thin but muscular waif, dragging a dead black swan, surely a portent of her own death. Swan Swane? Geddit? Her hair is tied in New Age plaits and ribbons and she swigs from a whiskey bottle like a man. Her Irish accent is at best curious. Sorcha Cusack as Monica Murray, Hester's neighbour replaces the Greek chorus, as a down to earth figure and sympathetic to Hester.

I suppose anyone looking at the comparison with Medea might tend to concentrate on where the two tales deviate. Medea was in a strange country, an alien, while Hester is on her home territory; there is no poisoned dress given to the Jason character's new wife. No physical threat exists to Hester's child the way there is to Medea's son and daughter. But both women have that witch like quality, a sense of using the supernatural to achieve their own outcomes, although Medea was more sorceress and Hester has gypsy or traveller blood. Hester Swane, like Medea finds herself a victim of men. She is not just vulnerable to Carthage's rejection of her but also is threatened and abused by local landowner and Caroline's father, Xavier Cassidy (Trevor Cooper).

In trying to put one's finger on what is dissatisfying about this production, one can't fault t he acting is mostly fine with some wayward accents, except of course from native Irish speakers like Brid Brennan and Sorcha Cusack. However the text is so very wordy, narrative based, at times sounding more like a radio play than a staged performance and Dominic Cooke's static direction does nothing to alleviate this. The caravan looks authentic but just sits there. The sets do not really create the right conditions for the imagination to be fired for us to believe that we are in this lonely wilderness where the peat absorbs not just rainwater but pulls down unsuspecting travellers and makes them disappear without a trace.

I think By the Bog of Cats falls between two stools. It misses the charm of the Irish storytelling of The Weir and lacks the intensity of pure tragedy. I hope that Holly Hunter will not be put off by this experience but will find a vehicle for the London stage which works better than this creaky Travellers' caravan to demonstrate her ability as an exceptional actress.

By the Bog of Cats
Written by Marina Carr
Directed by Dominic Cooke

Starring: Holly Hunter
With: Darren Greer, Sorcha Cusack, Kate Costello, Ellie Flynn-Watterson, Chloe O'Sullivan, Barbara Brennan, Brid Brennan, Gordon MacDonald, Denise Gough, Trevor Cooper, Warren Rusher, Colette Kelly, Aoife Madden, Patrick Waldron, Adam Best
Set Designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Costume Designer: Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting Designer: Jean Kalman
Sound Design: Gareth Fry
Movement: Liz Ranken
Composer: Gary Yershon
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6633
Booking to 26th November 2005
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 2nd December 2004 performance at the Wyndhams' Theatre, Charing Cross Road London WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)
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