There’s something deeply compelling about transgressive women. Women are supposed to be nice. We’re supposed to quell our rage. We’re raised to put others first, to suppress our ambition, our desire and our darker instincts. When we witness a character who does none of these things, we sit up and take notice, and secretly delight in their transgression. Isn’t this the beauty and purpose of theatre? To give our twisted desires to actors to play out, so that we may, for a moment, sublimate our own dark yearnings?
Hester Swane, the main protagonist in By the Bog of Cats, written by Irish playwright Marina Carr, is one of these women. The play opens with Hester, beautifully performed by Solonje Burns, dragging a dead swan across the snow to her caravan on the edge of the bog. The set, designed by Lucy Eyre and Claire Wynne is a mystical winter wonderland that beautifully evokes the misty bogs of Ireland, and is later successfully transformed into a wedding banquet.
Hester has lived on The Bog of Cats her whole life, and she has a deep connection to the land. Raised by a damaged, transgressive mother who once left her in the swan’s lair, and mysteriously said, ‘That child will live as long as this black swan … not a day more … not a day less,’ Hester’s life is about to spiral dangerously out of control. The father of her young daughter, Josie, is about to marry another woman, she’s been given a move-on notice from her home and her relationship with her daughter is under threat.
But Hester is no pushover. Instead of bowing down and humbly accepting her fate, she fights back and pulls no punches, arriving at her ex’s wedding in the wedding dress she once bought to marry him, berating him and his new bride in front of the guests, then burning down the house she has unwillingly sold to the new bride’s father Xavier Cassidy.
Burns is magnificent as Swane. With her long red locks, wiry physique and sneering red mouth, she commands the stage, and vibrates with rage. Praise must also go to Skye Wiltshire, who plays her daughter Josie. Wiltshire wins the audience over immediately with her beautiful rendition of an Irish folk song. Her purity and innocence stand in stark contrast to her mother’s damaged hardness. At times I wished she had been directed to show hints of the vulnerability and trauma her own mother carries. She is always happy, skipping and laughing, and seems unperturbed at the wedding, when her mother arrives and destroys the festivities.
Similarly, I was a little bemused by the direction of Caroline Cassidy – the new bride. Rebekah O’Brien plays Caroline with a lovely quiet dignity and sense of compassion for Hester’s fate, but it jarred that she sits back passively as her wedding is being ruptured. Also confusing was the fact that the script hints at an incestuous relationship with her father Xavier. Yet Alan Kennedy, the actor playing Xavier, performs the role as a man of integrity. There are no hints of lechery in his performance, even though Hester accuses him of rape and incest.
Caroline’s final line is: ‘I think there’s something wrong with me’, but she hasn’t been directed to show any darker undercurrents in her character, so this line doesn’t make sense. A little more depth and cohesion in the direction would have given more dimension to the characters of Caroline, her father and the child Josie.
Praise must go, however, to Susan Lynch who plays Josie’s grandmother, the snooty, penny-pinching Mrs Kilbride, who brings much needed comic relief to the intensity of the play. I also enjoyed Andreas Petalas in the roles of the Ghost Fancier and Hester’s murdered brother. He brings a lovely innocence to the brother ghost, rather than the more obvious vengeful incarnation many actors may have chosen.
While the wedding scene is awkward in parts – I would’ve liked to see the wedding guests attempt to restrain Hester rather than stand around passively while she lets rip – the final scene is stunning.
By now Hester is utterly deranged, staggering around in her dirty wedding dress, drinking heavily while the house she has just sold burns, and laughing with the Cat Woman, a haggish old witch, who is played with relish by Susannah Churchman. Burns is in her absolute element here, swinging wildly between laughter, rage and grief. I saw echoes of Dickens’ Miss Havisham, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and Euripides’ Medea in her performance. It is utterly thrilling. The violence that closes the play is beautifully directed with skill and surprising tenderness, and the audience is left reeling at the carnage this wild, damaged woman leaves in her wake.
Props to Irish Theatre Players for choosing such a challenging and powerful script, and executing it well. With its themes of displacement, betrayal and transgression, it has a contemporary feel and yet is also profoundly mythic and mystical. A must-see for people who like their theatre to pack a punch.
By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr
Irish Theatre Players
Irish Club of WA
Director: Lucy Eyre
Cast: Solonje Burn, Susan Lynch, Skye Wiltshire, Rebekah O’Brien, Alan Kennedy
By the Bog of Cats will be performed until 23 September 2023.