Irish mysticism and madness

Without doubt, putting on the first student production of the year has to be a nerve-racking prospect. Particularly when you’re walking in the shadows of great plays such as Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Elephant’s Graveyard. Nevertheless, director Bertand Lesca and his talented team not only matched last year’s performances, but set a new precedent for plays to come.

By the Bog of Cats, by Irish playwright Marina Carr, is rife with incest, murder, mysticism and insanity. It paints a picture of a disjointed Irish society, where those who do not fit in are exiled. Carr makes use of heavy Irish dialect, myths and stories to evoke a richness of cultural heritage within the play, and to present a nation which is obsessed with the past. It is these ties to history which prevents progression; all of the characters within the play are haunted – sometimes literally – by past memories.

This liminal space, between reality and illusion, life and death, was beautifully created by designers Laura Clarke and Jessie Vickerage. The stage was both barren and imbued with memories, a cold and ominous landscape strewn with dead leaves and abandoned toys. Hester’s tinker caravan, artistically crafted using strips and patches of brightly coloured material, functioned as a carnivalesque circus tent of dreams and memories.

A sad testimony to what has been lost. I have to say the set played a huge part in establishing the morose ambiance of the play, and all of its aesthetic appeal was complemented and enhanced by the mellifluous live music provided by Ben Osborn and his gifted accomplices. They firmly located the play in rural Ireland, and gave the performance a cold and edgy vibe.

Fiona Mikel’s outstanding performance as Hester has to be commended. Her decline into murderous insanity was tastefully and powerfully acted, and her guttural howl having murdered Josie (Rio West), her daughter, was perhaps the strongest part of her performance. Mikel’s Hester was frightening and fierce, but also vulnerable, making her a great catalyst for the drama. Matt Stokoe made a compelling Carthage and had great onstage presence, although his feelings for Hester were at times confused, his loyalties seemed to lie with Caroline.

Several audience members were moved to tears upon watching Carthage heave Josie out of the bog, which was symbolised by a bath, sopping wet and covered in blood. Stokoe and West established a believable and poignant relationship as father and daughter, which was a pleasure to watch. West made a charming Josie, and won over the audience instantaneously, making her murder even more unbearable. Her performance was exceptional.

Lesca highlighted the Oedipal complications in the play well – Caitlin Ince, who bought some much needed comedy to the piece as Mrs. Kilbride, had an overly intimate relationship with her son Carthage and Carl Cerny’s Xavier Cassidy was suitably insidious, his incestuous desires for his daughter, Caroline (Nikki Morland) subtly yet disturbingly suggested. The stylised wedding scene, which lacked pace, was still effective in presenting a group of fractured and lonely people desperate not to be left alone.

Overall, this play was stunning. An artistic and creative interpretation of Carr’s gritty play, which left the audience overwhelmed. If anything it was the script itself which was a weakness, farcical lines such as; ‘What is it, Catwoman?’ which detracted from the great mood established by cast and crew alike. Some times lines were lost, and accents were clumsy, but this remains a minor criticism of a major success. If this performance is a sign of what is to come from student drama this year, we should all be very excited indeed.


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