Anyone who went into the Town Hall Theatre on the 2nd or 3rd April, to see Compántas Lir’s presentation of Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats would acknowledge what a pity it was that this fine play couldn’t be performed where all of Compántas Lir’s productions to-date have been—among their own in Claregalway. The necessary cancellation of the festival was a huge disappointment to everyone concerned, and sympathy must be expressed to Compántas Lir, and to the Festival Committee.
So it was a joy to see it on the stage at all, as it must be one of this company’s finest productions to-date. A difficult play, because of the bleakness of its subject matter, and the stark brutality of its end. Still the quality of the performances and the professionalism of the production left a striking impression. Briefly, the play takes place on one day, the day that Hesteer Swane’s long-time lover, and father of her seven year old child, marries another for land and money. Hester lives on the edge of a world that fears and misunderstands her. Abandoned as a child by her mother, and carrying a dark burden of guilt about her brother, she lives with an intensity of emotion, and a disregard of social conventions which others see as a threat.
Lilyann Hannon, in the main role of Hester Swane, was stunning. She lived the role. Hester came to life before our eyes. Her voice and gestures, her whole body language personified Hester. She connected with the audience, and even managed to make us feel sympathy for this often difficult character. The restrained ferocity of her glances, the untamed nature, the essence of a character brought to the edge, were all caught by Lilyann’s evocative performance. It was a breathtaking sight. Lilyann would have swept the boards with best actress awards, if this play had been able to do the rounds.
Hers was not the only fine performance on the night. Catwoman, played by Evelyn Casserly, was authentically eccentric, with a wonderful costume, and a worrying ability to convey the realistic eating of mice to the audience. Sean Kavanagh, Xavier Cassidy, from his limp, to the thudding realism of his struggle with Hester in Act 2, played the bull-headed farmer, the part called for.
Ailbhe Hession as Josie Kilbride brought all the unaffected sweetness, laced with mischief, of the 7-year old she so convincingly played. Her performance rang through, astonishingly polished in one so young.
Fidelma O’Rourke, Mrs. Kilbride, with her prejudice, her meanness, and her lording it over her son on his wedding day was every inch the nightmare Irish mother-in-law. Her delivery was spot on, her lines spoken with all the authority of her kind. Stereotypical as it could have been, this actress’ skills lifted it beyond type, and gave the character an edge which lent credence to the betrayal.
Padraic O’Connell as Carthage, the groom who jilts the mother of his child to marry money, carried his part well. The confusion of someone swept on by events partly of his own making, and not being able to see consequences or read the darkness of Hester’s nature, were well expressed.
Allen Feeney ‘s ghostly pallor, and ghoulish throat wound, impacted every time he came on, thanks both to his strong acting skills, and the realism that Anne Moran and Síle Mannion brought to his make-up.
Michael Hession as the ghost fancier, made a brief appearance at the beginning, and also at the end. Tribute again to make-up and also to the costume department for making him look as sinister as the part called for.
Patricia Carton’s portrayal as Monica was both sympathetic and affecting. The simplicity and sincerity of her character’s emotions, with all her homely virtues, were well brought out, and acted as a foil to the gothic intensity of what was happening elsewhere. The exchanges between Fr Willow (Simon Kavanagh) and Catwoman, lent the play much humour in the second act, before the unrelenting horror of the last.
Bernadette Prendergast played Caroline Cassidy as the sweet natured contrast to Hester, the girl Carthage marries for her father’s money. It is a tribute to this fine company that there is no weakling. Cameo roles were as finely played as the main ones, Peter Talbot as the barman, young Dunne, giving everyone a welcome laugh.
Margaret Martin’s production tempered a polish and professionalism, with raw emotion and gutsy realism, giving us a night to remember, and an experience to savour. The accents throughout were perfect, and added greatly to the credibility to the characters. It is difficult to give proper credit to the team who made up this fine performance without acknowledging the great back-up they enjoy from the back-stage crew. The set design of Vicky Brennan gave a fitting setting, and the ingenious design of the folding caravan was ably brought to life by Regis Goulding, John Whelen, Tony Broderick and John Brennan. Lighting was by Francis Moran and Adrian Moran, with Tom McGuire on sound. The stage crew of Mary Duggan, Carmel Kenny and Mary McCarthy gave great support to this fine crew of actors.
Although no-one was credited on the programme with costumes, the company kept up the high standards they have established.
This production more than held its own with any other which has come to the Town Hall in recent years. Compántas Lir are a company that Claregalway should be proud of. Long may they prosper.