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“By the Bog of Cats”: An Irish Medea

September 11, 2015

By the Bog of Cats

“a mesmerizing triumph…”
“This is contemporary theatre at it’s best.”
“an exceptionally haunting piece of work…”

These are only a few of the accolades published by Dublin newspapers about the play that my friend, Betty, and I saw when we were in Ireland. We both agree: it was one of the highlights of our trip. I have added two quotes from the play’s program.

“By the Bog of Cats” is a grim play: brilliantly designed, staged, and performed by the Abbey Theater in Dublin. Using the myth of Medea as a starting point, playwright Marina Carr has created a modern story of oppression, alienation – and magic. 1. “The bog, as is so often the case with landscape in Irish literature, is the powerful locus of the story, as essential to the action as any character.” On a set that looks like something out of the final scenes of “King Lear”, we meet Hester Swain, a crass, incredibly tough bog dweller, who is fighting everyone – her former lover, a wealthy landlord, and her small-minded community to carve out an existence for herself and her young daughter on the bogs. Hester is beautiful, wild – an outsider – and as the play progresses, we begin to understand why she cannot or will not move away from the territory she loves.

Despite her courageous stand against all of these people, Hester is finally brought down, not by outside forces, but her own tragic flaw: her obsessive love for Carthage Kilbride, the lover who has deserted her. Hester is sometimes aided by another mysterious bog-dweller, Catwoman, a wonderfully complex character, who provides moments of hilarious slapstick interspersed with scenes when she demonstrates the powers and magic of a seer. 2. “… The play is shot through with the surreal nature of the Gaelic imagination, making Hester and Catwoman essential characters of the Irish stage”….

But even Catwoman can not save Hester from her own destruction; she can only predict what will happen. The acting is so strong, especially Susan Lynch who plays Hester and 8 year old Elodie Devins who plays her daughter – and provides the play with some lyrical, haunting moments.

The other characters of the play – Hester’s oppressors – are realistic and contemporary: the landlord, an affable sort, who turns vicious and brutal when opposed, and the gossipy, small-minded women of the community. Hester is right to reject them; but she pays a heavy price for her independence. These, plus the lover, who rejects Hester for the landlord’s daughter and respectability, are all people we recognize. The wedding of the lover and the landlord’s daughter, played on the same bleak, haunted set is completely surreal – and, at moments, very funny.

Despite the realism of these characters and the situations they find themselves in, the play is infused with magic. Throughout the play, there is a complex inter-twining of contemporary realism and magic which seems uniquely Irish.

The final scenes of the play follow the Medea myth and are pretty horrendous. But the play is so well written and the performance of the leading actress is so strong that the audience’s reaction is both horror and pity: the mark of a true tragedy.

1 and  2: from “Outside” by Mary O’Malley in the program for “By the Bog of Cats”

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