There’s something deeply unsettling about the primal howl that pours forth from Holly Hunter near the end of “By the Bog of Cats,” the Irish play in which the very American thesp is making her U.K. stage debut. Playing a feral mother who doesn’t take lightly to abandoned love, Hunter lets rip with a barely suppressed rage that doesn’t seem possible from someone so diminutive. The moment stills the house, not least because it punctures the blarney in which “Bog” is bogged down. One has to commend Hunter: Her perf is nothing if not brave, however bizarre the context for it.
Hunter previously starred in Marina Carr’s 1998 Dublin fest premiere at San Jose Rep in a 2001 production that was otherwise entirely different (fellow thesp Gordon MacDonald is the only other holdover). It’s easyto see the attraction of Carr’s aggrieved heroine, Hester Swane, to actresses looking for precisely those meaty roles that movies tend to mete out less regularly, especially as women get older. A Celtic Medea in everything but name who speaks a language marinated in Yeats and Synge, Hester comes from the bunny-boiler “Fatal Attraction” school of heroine in which films long have specialized, the discourse here lifted into the sort of overripe theatrical patois that performers surely relish — even if audiences may tire of it.
Carr’s other dramas generally play London venues like the Royal Court, which offer a cozier environment for the kind of heavy-going mysticism that sits murkily on a larger West End stage. Hester is first seen dragging the corpse of a black swan across designer Hildegard Bechtler’s bleakly stylized set, and it isn’t long before her encounter with a so-called Ghost Fancier (Darren Greer) hints strongly that Hester soon may be on her way toward corpse-land herself. (None too willingly, it must be said, with Hester insisting she is alive and intends “to stay that way.”)
For one thing, she doesn’t want to miss any opportunity to foul the path now trod by the grandly named Carthage Kilbride (a charismatic turn from MacDonald), Hester’s onetime lover and father to her 7-year-old daughter Josie (Kate Costello). “Carthage Kilbride is mine for always,” says Hester with a determination that exists to be subsequently denied.
In fact, Carthage is marrying one Caroline Cassidy (Denise Gough), the comely young daughter of local landowner Xavier (Trevor Cooper), and he fully expects to have Josie present at the wedding.
You needn’t have clocked Hester’s vaguely witchlike proclivities to guess how things progress, Gary Yershon’s mood music plaintively repeating what must be this least seductive of theatrical titles. (Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a title less appropriate for the textual workout “by the bog of cats” gets here.)
The characters trade threats and imprecations and pay due heed to portents, with Hester usefully informing Caroline, “I’m afraid of meself.” Scarcely less fearsome is Carr’s catalog of colorful rural eccentrics of the sort to make the Irish Tourist Board cringe. Chief among them is the unfortunately named Catwoman — no, not that one — whom Tony winner Brid Brennan (“Dancing at Lughnasa”) plays with an irreverent squint, her furry attire suggesting this play’s lone connection to some other theatrical cats of old.
A long wedding feast is amusingly dominated by Barbara Brennan as the mother-in-law from hell, even if this is one occasion in which in-laws matter substantially less than the intruder, Hester, who soon is leaping onto the banquet table in an attempt to settle scores.
On hand to help our heroine see reason is Sorcha Cusack in good form as the kindly neighbor, Monica Murray. But common sense means little to a psyche that has already known its share of bloodshed and slaughter and is ready for more.
The role of Hester is in every way a stretch for Hunter, whose gorgeous Southern drawl has never marked her out as having any kind of avidity for accents. (Her Oscar-winning Scotswoman in “The Piano” was mostly mute.) Thesp’s early lines in “Bog” elicited uncomfortable laughs from some audience members at the press-night perf, and it’s to Hunter’s credit that her undeniable commitment ultimately silenced those prepared to titter at some bizarre vowels.But those wayward sounds are simply the most obvious signs that Dominic Cooke’s hard-working production has yet to gel. In the end, Hunter and Co. are to be admired for attempting an aesthetic leap that Carr’s play, like that faux-mystical feline bog, proceeds to swallow up.