Michael Billington, ‘Decadent Age’, review of works by Marina Carr and Mustapha Matura,
in Guardian Weekly (17-23 Dec. 2004).

At the Wyndham’s theatre there was a new kind of West End first night: no B-list celebs, no braying backers, no phoney hysteria. But, much as I applaud the management’s desire to expose Marina Carr’s play By the Bog of Cats to critics alongside a regular audience, I feel the work itself made infinitely more sense when I first saw it at the Dublin Abbey in 1998.

Bravely, if not always wisely, Marina Carr has transplanted the story of Euripides Medea to the bogs of rural Ireland. Her heroine, Hester Swayne, widely regarded as “Jezebel witch”, is about to be jilted by her long-time lover, Carthage, so that he can marry a local landowner’s daughter. Warned to leave or die, Hester defiantly stays put, does her best to wreck her lover’s wedding and engages in a fateful tussle over their bastard daughter.

In the play by Euripides, Medea is like some natural force confronting a supposedly rational civilisation with its own brutality, but Carr’s Hester, abandoned by her mother in childhood, seems more like a sad victim of circumstance than a mythic prototype.

And, in a modern context, naggingly literal questions arise. Since the tormented Hester has been driven by jealousy to fraticide, you wonder why she is walking around scot-free.

The irony is that when Carr trains her eye on the realities of rural Ireland she writes superbly well. Much the best scene the play is the hilarious wedding of Carthage to the submissive Caroline. As in Carr’s earlier play, Portia Coughlan, I felt her gift is for scathingly accurate observation of Irish life.

But the other problem with this production lies in the casting of Holly Hunter as Hester. Hunter is, without doubt, a real actress. Her Hester is a tiny bundle energy who occupies the the stage. She kicks the pay-off offered by Carthage’s father derisively into touch. When reverting to liquor, she whips a bottle from inside her leggings and her hands over its base like a habitual toper. And, when asked by her daughter if she liked her mother, she shakes her head fiercely before poignantly replying: “More than anythin’ in this cold white world”. But acting skills can only take one so far: what I could never believe was that Hunter was a creature of the Irish bogs. Partly it’s a matter of her tell-tale American vowels. But it’s also a question of body-language. Where Olwen Fourere in the original Dublin production prowled warily around the stage as if reared in the unreliable soil of middle-Ireland, Hunter has her feet firmly planted on the ground.

Dominic Cooke’s visually adroit production, with a curving bank of bloodstained snow designed by Hildegard Bechter, in a sense highlights Hunter’s isolation by surrounding her with a strong team of Irish actors. Brid Brennan is suitably forbidding as the fate-predicting blind Catwoman. Barbara Brennan is gutsily vulgar as Carthage’s mother. Sorcha Cusack as a kindly neighbour, Patrick Waldron as the woozy priest and Kate Costello as Hester’s daughter are also authentic.

But one is left with a play that in Dublin seemed to have visible roots in Irish culture. In London it looks more like an exotic transplant. In Carr’s paly I felt that Hester could have made different choices. The result is a case of history rather than poetic tragedy.

Every 10 years Nicolas Kent revives Playboy of the Western World, Mustapha Matura’s famous Trinidadian transposition of Synge’s Irish tragicomedy. On its third outing at the Tricycle the show remains as lively, ebullient and funny as ever. If anything, it is a shade too genial, missing some of the sombre undertorm of Synge’s masterpiece.

It is astonishing, though, how closely Matura follows Synge’s plot. We may be in a Trinidad rum shop rather than a Mayo shebeen, but the hero, Ken, is a fugitive who finds that his presumed parricide endows him with an unexpected sexual charisma. Local girls ply him with freshwater oysters and molasses, and an antique voodoo woman sinks her claws into him. But the heart of the play lies in the joint transformation of Ken from nervous wimp to conquering hero and of Peggy, who runs her father’s rum shop, from sharp-tongued sourpuss to adoring lover.

As comedy Matura’s version is hard to fault: he keeps all of Synge’s surprise entrances and adds to them his own 1950s period texture and joyous creole dialogue, with its references to “washicongs” (pumps), “totie” (penis) and “Basil de Boobalee” (a dummy). The main difference between Matura and Synge is that in the latter you feel women are perennial victims and that Pegeen, after her moment of self-discovery, is doomed to derelict solitude, but that itself may be a comment on the cultural gap between County Mayo and life-loving Trinidad.

Even if the tragedy is short-changed, the performances in Kent’s revival are a delight. Sharon Duncan-Brewster, salaciously licking the sweat from her hero’s bare torso, captures the blossoming sensuality of the oppressed Pegeen. And Kobna, Holdbrook-Smith’s Ken has such beguiling innocence that even when he tells Peggy he feels closer to her than anybody (“man, woman or dog”) he makes it sound like a compliment.

Two supporting performances also have abundant, extra-textual life. Joy Richardson turns Mama Benin, the old obeah woman, into a figure of quivering concupiscence as she hitches up her skirts to reveal an amplitude of thigh. And Ben Bennett makes Peggys intended fiancée a wonderfully nerdish figure for ever hovering on the fringes of the action like a scutting, bespectacled mouse. [End].

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