It’s rare to look around a theatre audience when the lights go up at the end of the performance and see quite so many people dabbing at their eyes. Marina Carr’s plays are not known for their happy endings, but the harrowing closing scenes of By the Bog of Cats in the Abbey Theatre seem to have taken even the stalwarts of the Abbey by surprise.
Inspired by Euripedes’ Medea, By the Bog of Cats is in equal parts social commentary and tragic fantasy, which has been brought to life with varying degrees of effectiveness by Selina Cartmell’s direction. When it works, it’s phenomenal; when it doesn’t, we’re left with a feeling that an opportunity has been missed.
By the Bog of Cats is a highly-strung play set in the bogs of the Irish midlands, which subjugates the ethereality of the Irish countryside. The setting and the set design plays as large a role as any of the characters in the performance, as the bog grasps on to the community’s memories of the past and hopes for the future. The minimalist set design allows the set to function as the bog itself, the house, the caravan and the wedding venue with only minor changes or verbal cues used to indicate the change. This works to great effect; the emotional intensity of the play is more than enough to carry it through to the emotional heights of the final scenes.
A wonderful backing cast of actors threatens to take the spotlight away from Susan Lynch, who plays the lead role of Hester Swane. The excellent Marion O’Dwyer as Mrs Kilbride, Peter Gowen as Caroline’s father and Bríd Ní Neachtain as Catwoman steal the show. Susan Lynch does her best, but a certain amount of emotion and the pity we might have had for Hester is lost through her repeated shouting down of her opposing characters. It is not until the second half of the play that we get to see more of her range, as emotional scenes with her daughter Josie (played by the wonderful young actress Elodie Devins, who alternates with Eve Maher) bring a welcome return to the more personal and emotionally affecting scenes, which are excellently wrought.
Through her direction, Cartmell makes strides towards the reinvention of the play as a modern one, rather than one held in the suspension in the twentieth century. The Ghost Fancier’s reimagining as a western cowboy is extremely effective at adding to the play’s surreal nature, which is helped along by Monica Frawley’s otherworldly set-design. The introduction of video technology as a story-telling device in the first half of the play at first seems promising, but unfortunately seems to have been forgotten about in the second act.
The nature of By the Bog of Cats is such that one cannot leave it without being affected by it in some way. The Abbey’s production is no different. Its high points are phenomenal, but are tainted somewhat by a lack of following through in some aspects of the performance. Nonetheless, for the emotional journey on which it takes its audience, this rendition of By the Bog of Cats has few equals.
See our first issue of the University Observer next week for an interview with playwright Marina Carr.
By the Bog of Cats runs in the Abbey Theatre until September 12th. Tickets are available from www.abbeytheatre.ie