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 The Theatreguide.London Review

By the Bog of Cats
Wyndhams Theatre      Winter 2004-2005

This new Irish play is a failure, but it might be worth seeing anyway, for a couple of strong performances and some object lessons in what makes a play a failure.

Set in that literary staple, the Irish bogs, it centres on a passionate woman who is a bit of a witch. Her former lover, and father of her daughter, has left her to marry a local landowner's daughter, and she is determined to stop the marriage and get him back.

She is played by Holly Hunter, yet another Hollywood star making a brief visit to the West End, but more successfully than most.

Hunter is not a flashy star-like actress, which may be one reason she's not drawing crowds. But she is an intense and devoted one, and she inhabits this half-mad woman fully.

As wildly-swinging as the passionate woman is, Hunter's performance is strikingly internal and quiet, and might remind you of her role in the film The Piano.

You may not believe in either the character or the play, but you won't be able to separate the actress from the character, and that is a kind of first-rate acting.

Gordon MacDonald is also good as the man, believably creating a simple bloke who honestly and unmaliciously believes that, because it would be most convenient for him if his former lover went away and left him their daughter to raise, that she'd naturally raise no objection.

But that's about where the show's virtues end. Nothing else about the characters, the setting, the story or the milieu rings true. Though the author, Marina Carr, is Irish, as are several of the performers, and the local colour is laid on so thick that whole chunks of the dialogue are nearly indecipherable, it all does seem laid on rather than integral.

The passions, the magic, the ghosts and the local colour are all generic, and with a little adjustment to the dialects the play could just as easily be set in the American South, or India, or among the characters of The Sopranos.

When a play makes such a big deal about its ethnic and cultural setting and you don't feel that that setting is really part of the play, but has just been imposed on it, then you can never really believe any of it.

And this constrains the actors. The always reliable Brid Brennan is stuck with a character - the mad beggarwoman with mystical powers - taken straight out of The Child's Guide to Cliched Irish Characters, and Trevor Cooper's father of the bride might actually make more sense if the play were set in Mississippi and he could openly be a redneck.

Since you never get drawn into the play, you have time to notice the borrowings from other works. If Cooper's character seems to have wandered in from Tennessee Williams, a ghostly figure comes straight out of Ibsen's Peer Gynt.

Hildegard Bechtler's set design, which reduces a thematically important house to mere outline, puts a relatively unimportant gypsy wagon onstage in such massive and overelaborate detail that it seems left over from a production of Mother Courage (and when Holly Hunter sits spread-legged on its steps, you half-expect her to pull out a pipe and start singing Brecht).

And of course there's the biggest borrowing of all. If you're planning to see the show, stop reading now, because I'm going to give away the ending. Actually, it's telegraphed long in advance, and you might even have spotted it in my plot outline earlier. For all its ersatz Irishness, this play is nothing more than Medea, with the same characters, the same situation and the same horrifying ending.

And that may be the key to the play's failure. It wasn't conceived out of any reality, out of a sense of character or setting or psychology. It is just an intellectual construct - let's take this plot and dump that local colour all over it and see what it comes out looking like.

Of course it's possible (though far too rarely worth it) to rewrite the classics, just as its possible to do Shakespeare in modern dress, but only if the new elements create a new immediacy and reality an audience will respond to.

Merely imposing the one on the other actually subtracts reality (as badly done modern dress Shakespeare does),leaving you with much less than the original.

And if you're a student of play writing and want evidence of that, see By the Bog of Cats.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of By The Bog Of Cats - Wyndham's Theatre 2004

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