Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road. Directed by Dominic Cooke. Runs approximately 2 hrs., 10 mins., including interval
Holly Hunter is an intense and extremely focused and concentrated actor; she has not an ounce of superfluous fat on a nearly gaunt frame and seems (said my companion) to be made of steel wire. She is deeply and completely into this role of Hester Swane, a sort of tinker who lives mostly in a caravan on the Bog of Cats, a godforsaken place somewhere in central Ireland. The man she loves (Carthage Kilbride) and with whom she conceived a child, Josie (beautifully and convincingly played by Kate Costello in this performance), is to be married to a younger woman, Caroline Cassidy. Hester — she wonders what kind of a name this was that her mother gave her, but those of us who have read Hawthorne know. She suffers from a deep grievance, rejection, or multiple rejections. She killed her own brother, with the help of Carthage (she insists; he denies it) in vengeance for being rejected by her mother and father (not married to one another). And when the wedding takes place Hester, dressed in a white dress, breaks into the party to demand that the newly married Carthage come away with her — he declines — and, when she discovers that Josie has been invited along with Carthage and Caroline on their honeymoon to Spain, in a burst of desperation she kills Josie as well.
If this sounds like a parallel to the Medea story, it is indeed. Carr’s conscious effort and intention here (a program note explains) is to adapt this play about a character of ancient myth to a modern Irish setting. She does so with extraordinary clarity and conviction; the play overflows with vitality and intensity. Most of the scenes take place in front of Hester’s caravan, a dark, menacing presence that is drawn onto the stage; we see it descend and collapse accordion fashion into itself when drawn back off again. It is a brilliant stage device; it sits lonely and starkly on this otherwise featureless bog and becomes a brooding symbol for Hester’s own existential despair.
In fact, one senses early on that this actress is just the right one to play Carr’s central character. She is able to establish and convey throughout the deep misery over being born, over the plight of luckless beings that Carr so eloquently captures in her language and situations: something that goes much deeper than the accidentals, sharp and poignant as they are, of the interaction of characters and the way they are intertwined in the relentless action of the play. We see the vengeful, profoundly self-destructive murder of an innocent child coming and are powerless to do anything except watch the evolution of the drama to its end.
Carr emphasizes the outsize singularity of her morbid protagonist and her separation from the bulk of more ordinary human beings by making her privy to ghosts and apparitions. The first apparition is of a character called The Ghost Fancier, dressed unaccountably in top hat and formal suit, who explains that if there were ghosts — and there are ghosts, to be sure — there must be those who are fanciers of them. Death has a morbid fascination for such people, he implies, and Hester’s own affinity for death, the dead, and the remnants of these spirits is thus established early on. The second ghost is that of her own brother, his bloody throat in evidence; he quarrels with Hester over why she killed him, saying it was for his money, but is contradicted by Hester, who says that she told their father that she, Hester, no longer loved him, leaving the son to reap the benefits of living with the father. Her jealousy of the brother’s good fortune, his acceptance by the father, was what moved her to her fateful, murderous actions. With all this as prelude, it is almost inevitable that the action will turn in the way it does, toward Hester’s eventual murder of her own sweet child.
Josie is, then, a pivotal and climactic character. She is winningly played by Kate Costello, one of three young actresses who alternate in the role. Kate is about ten years old and so comes across as a rather precocious seven-year-old, her fictional age. Carr makes sure that we fall in love with her, building up the pathos and dramatic irony of her plight and her destiny. It is all very rough stuff, and we leave the theatre unable to speak, except to ask one another “Are you all right?” We are not at all sure that we are. What troubles us as much as the spectacle of the murder itself is the thought of the evident perennial fascination of playwrights and audiences over some two-and-a-half millennia with the character of a woman who feels rejected and wronged so deeply that she is capable of committing so profoundly self-denying an act as infanticide. And I, who have so painfully lost a daughter, can only wonder, appalled, how anyone can deliberately do away with her own child.
It is newly evident, after seeing this play, that human beings are capable of anything and everything and that they do not have to be insane in order to do it.