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Dublin: 2 °C Tuesday 12 November, 2019
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The Abbey theatre stage has been transformed into an icy bog for this dark play

It’s all for the performance of a Marina Carr play.

Susan Lynch (Hester Swayne) in By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr Pic  Tr... Susan Lynch as Hester Swane Source: TREVOR HART

This here is my house and my garden and my stretch of bog and no wan’s runnin’ me out of here

THERE HAVE BEEN many incarnations of imaginary worlds on the Abbey’s stage, but its latest must be one of the most unusual.

The empty space has been transformed into a round, deep, icy bog, almost lunar in its appearance. The front protrudes out towards the audience, the back is raised up towards the gods.

The bog is the centre of By The Bog of Cats, the Marina Carr play that is currently on the Abbey stage, which has returned 17 years after it was first performed there.

By The Bog of Cats has its roots in Greek tragedy, but its feet are firmly planted on Irish soil. Smack bang in the middle of the island, where accents are wild and lusty, and relationships fierce and passionate.

Susan Lynch (Hester Swane) in Abbey Theatre's new production of By the B... Susan Lynch as Hester Swane

At the centre of the play is Hester Swane (Susan Lynch), all big hair and deep-throated laugh, with a whiskey-fuelled fire burning in her belly. She has an innocent, sweet young daughter, and a lover – Carthage Kilbride – who is about to marry another, more proper, woman.

Swane is an outsider, of Traveller blood, never fitting into the local community but never bending to its will. Her home is a caravan, her wayward mother gone.

She enters the play dragging a black swan by its neck, and recounts tales of nights roaming her beloved bog, treading its mucky earth.

Carr was born in Offaly, and became a playwright after university. She creates female characters who are meaty and strong – Hester Swayne does unfathomable things but she does them because she is driven to do them. She cares not for what’s ‘right’ or proper.

Creating a lunar world

Charged with creating the stage and look for this new production of By The Bog of Cats was Monica Frawley, the renowned theatre designer who worked with Carr on the previous Abbey production of Bog of Cats.

How did she go about coming up with the new look? She didn’t turn to her previous work, instead returning to the text. “The text itself is timeless anyway because it’s this Medea story, the Greek Medea story,” she says.

Jane Brennan as Monica Murray in Abbey Theatre's new production of By th... Jane Brennan as Monica Murray

“It is a classic, and human and epic and all of those things together.”

She says she had forgotten the humour in By the Bog of Cats, that it’s not all doom and gloom. “Marina Carr has a wicked sense of humour which is wonderful and very much grounded in a reality as well. People she knows very well, she comes from the midlands, and it’s set in the midlands so there’s great humanity in her work.”

Frawley loves the play for its visceral feel.

The opening line in the text is a woman drags a black swan through the snow, through a frozen landscape. It beats an Irish tenement… it’s, ooh, great. It’s something that is dreamlike.

After she re-read the text, she then drew moments from the play as they occurred to her – with things leaping into her head, inspired by not just the play, but moments from her past, people she has seen walking around town “wearing mad things”.

The clothes that Hester Swane wears were inspired by a French friend of Frawley’s, a woman who cares not for commodity or whether there is dirt under her nails, but has a very specific look.

Susan Lynch as Hester Swane in Abbey Theatre's new production of By the ... Susan Lynch as Hester Swane

“Sometimes you find yourself drawing and something comes up and you don’t even know why it’s there.” The casting, too, helps – each costume is to fit not just the character but the actor, and their vision of the character.

Frawley saw the world of By The Bog of Cats as “a liminal world, maybe in a limbo”, and so the stage reflects that. “It’s the midlands of the bogs of Ireland, and it’s kind of river Styx, and it’s all those things,” she says.

After the drawings of the set, a model was made, for cast and crew to study. Frawley loves doing both the costuming and the staging, which makes sense given how much they interact with each other.

A personal story

Des Nealon as Father Willow and Bríd Ní Neachtain as Catwoman in the Abb... Des Nealon as Father Willow and Bríd Ní Neachtain as Catwoman

Frawley had an unexpected experience while working on the gritty Bog of Cats.

“I had a very close friend who took his child’s life and took his own afterwards. So that has been extraordinary in this because it brings up stuff, amazing things. And that has been in the back of my head and the front of it, a lot. Questions I’ve always asked,” she says.

The play is “full of ghosts”, and she feels their presence.

So it’s a huge chunk of human experience and life and terror of its ghosts that I think everybody brings with them. As you go through life they build up a bit – people who were no longer there but are all around. So all of that, I feel, is really extraordinary.

And yet, despite all of this emotion, these ghosts, the tragedy, Frawley knows that her job is not to over-egg things: she has to let the play just happen.

The power of women

Frawley describes Carr as “absolutely fantastic”, thanks to her “extraordinary” imagination, where ghosts “are real, she knows them, they are on the bog, they’re there”.

But it’s also her humanity, her sense of laughing at sometimes really black and bleak things that are in life, that one experiences in life, and her great feeling for people.

Marion O'Dwyer (Mrs. Kilbride) and Barry John O'Connor (Carthage Kilbrid...

She appreciates too how Carr’s female characters are powerful, stand-out women.

“I think her women are extraordinarily strong and I have no doubt she is massively interested in women and their at times inability to access power, to have any power; that feeling of powerlessness,” she says.

And I think that’s manifest in mostly everything she writes. She is an incredibly strong woman herself…  I definitely think she writes superbly well for women.

But as for the depiction of women on stage in Ireland in general, the experienced Frawley says she still thinks “there’s a long way to go”.

“Marina would be a bit exceptional in that,” she says, mentioning other characters from plays by the likes of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, but adding:

I still think women have a long way to go in the theatre unfortunately. And thank God for people like Marina.

Read: This story of a suspected IRA member is as relevant today as it was in 1923>

Read: “She could set the world alight – but she’s not allowed, so she sets fire to people’s hair”>

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