A Light In The Black
Shale grey and coal black, the world seems a desolate place on Raftery's hill. Beyond the walls of the family kitchen dead cattle litter the fields, left there to rot. Here even compliments have a sting as the women wait for their lives to begin. Yet life, it turns out, is what's happening while you’re waiting for your life to happen. And life is grim, cruel, and petty, wrapped up in a familial familiarity passed off as love. A misery filled togetherness complicit in the worse kinds of sin. In Marina Carr’s brave and brutally brilliant “On Raftery’s Hill,” an interwoven tapestry of themes and interrogations disclose a searing indictment of the normalised horrors perpetrated behind closed doors against those most vulnerable. Heartbreaking, heartrending, and unrelentingly powerful, “On Raftery’s Hill” travels to the gates of hell to offer a peak inside. And what Carr’s light in the black reveals is deeply disturbing, deeply moving, and frighteningly recognisible in this haunting, dark beauty.
Like night encroaching at the end of day, “On Raftery’s Hill,” sees the last pocket of light being slowly swallowed into the patriarchal dark. Their lives an endless routine of cooking and caring, Dinah and Sorrel tend to the kitchen, the only clean space in their father, Red’s, decrepit, semi flooded home. Here they tend to his hunter gatherer needs, with Dinah attending to needs no child, or daughter, should ever have to attend to. Over the years Red has lost touch with the rich land that surrounds him, lost in a reverie of whiskey and imagined slights, just as his mother, Salome, has retreated into fantasies of nostalgia and escape. Yet weeds of beauty sprout amidst the decay. The fiddle playing by the emotional Ded, Red’s failure of a son bent double under the burden, haunts the darkness like a keening. There’s also the innocent young Sorrel, counting down the days to her marriage in a few months time to young pup Dara Mood when she finally gets to leave the farm. Yet innocence and escape can prove frail in the lonely world the Raftery’s inhabit. A world Red’s hunting partner, Issac, frequently contextualises with tales of women digging children up from their graves, madmen dying in asylums, the lessons of Greek mythology, and the loss of a dying cat. Indeed, how can you possibly escape when better the devil you know than having everyone know the devils you live with?
An extraordinarily powerful opening sees a haunting score and sound design by Carl Kennedy, married to a flawless lighting design by Paul Keogan, bringing Joanna Parkers sublime, hell dark set to life. As well as setting the unrelenting, oppressive tone for what is to follow in a world were shadows and secrets flit across the periphery of vision and memory. Where faint images of female characters projected, less successfully, onto the back wall, their faces partially submerged in water, reinforce that what’s half seen is just as important as what’s seen. Something director Caitríona McLaughlin both explores and exploits with great success. Foregrounding an overwhelming sense of oppressiveness, with pace drawn out and taut, McLaughlin imposes a forced aesthetic over the organic flow of dialogue by often employing long pauses in delivery. One which loses much, but compensates somewhat by foregrounding that which remains unspoken, or left unsaid, residing in the subtextual spaces between the lines. Even so, McLaughlin still releases the humour and humanity, warped though it might be, latent at the heart of Carr’s extraordinary script. Visually and compositionally, McLaughlin crafts images of overwhelming potency, with the image that closes the first half being met with an equally, if not more powerful image to open the second. Indeed, the final image around the table proves inescapably heartbreaking, all of which makes the Chekhovian gunshot feel tagged on and shallow in comparison.
Performatively, McLaughlin marshals an extraordinary ensemble, one whose separate worlds co-inhabit in isolated togetherness. A compelling Peter Gowen as Issac Dunn reinforces, with unsettling ease, the sense of ordinariness that informs Raftery’s world. A world challenged by Kwaku Fortune’s Dara Mood, whose strong performance is undermined somewhat by looking just a little too neat and slick as a Midlands farmer, resembling someone who’s just rambled in from a coffee shop rather than a farm. Not so a powerful and remarkable Peter Coonan as Ded, releasing the heart of the howl reverberating beneath the silence. To call Marie Mullen’s Salome comic relief is to understate an extraordinary and subtle performance, one which delivers much in terms of depth and texture. Maeve Fitzgerald as Dinah, Zara Devlin as Sorrel, along with Lorcan Cranitch as Red, deliver three of the bravest, compelling, and most sensitive performances, with Devlin’s processing of the end of innocence being beautfully conveyed. Fitzgerald’s mesmerising Dinah, mother, daughter, sister and slave, is a tour de force. As is Lorcan Cranitch’s sarcastic yet sheepish Red, a loud mouth throwing money and whiskey around to forget the sins of the father, a monster made man reaping his loneliness.
First produced in 2000, “On Raftery’s Hill” might finds us in a different, more promising landscape, but there’s still some way to go when it comes to abuse. Yet by not making overt judgements, by recognising the complicity of silence, and by acknowledging the Stockholm syndrome of its victims, “On Raftery’s Hill” condemns abuse far more compellingly than if it merely vented its spleen. Similarly when it comes to commentaries and interrogations on patriarchy, as well as on Irish social and theatrical structures which affect women particularly. With “On Raftery’s Hill” Carr reminds us that not only is she one of Ireland’s most gifted female playwrights, she’s one of its most gifted playwrights, period. Powerful, brave, capable of disturbing the comforted and comforting the disturbed, “On Raftery’s Hill” is an unmissable tour de force.
“On Raftery’s Hill” by Marina Carr, runs at The Abbey Theatre until May 12th
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre
Please note this show is 16+ and patrons may find some scenes distressing