By the Bog of Cats, Wyndhams Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

This is not the first time that Holly Hunter has acted in By the Bog of Cats (she appeared in an earlier staging in San José). Evidently, the Hollywood star sees something in Marina Carr's play that eludes this reviewer.

Transplanting Greek tragedy to the dark bogs of the Irish midlands, the piece gets its British premiere in a powerfully cast and poetically well-gauged production by Dominic Cooke. Hunter plays Hester Swane, a woman of tinker stock and a contemporary version of Medea, the heroine whose anguish at being spurned drives her to the terrible and self-destructive revenge of infanticide.

We discover Hester putting up doughty resistance to being evicted from her home by Carthage Kilbride (Gordon MacDonald), the man with whom she has lived for 14 years. He is the father of their seven-year-old daughter (a superb Kate Costello) and an ex-lover to whom she still feels a fierce, almost elemental attachment. But Carthage is about to marry a landowner's heiress and wants rid of the disreputable Hester. Today is his wedding day, and something tells you it is not going to end in laughter.

I wish I could say that I was able to take the resulting play seriously. But this, alas, is not Greek drama brought up to date; it's high-class hokum hoping to gain some tragic glamour by association. I found it hard to keep a straight face from the moment when Hester first appears, dragging the corpse of a black swan. A blind cat-woman tells her of the auld prediction that she won't long outlive that creature - a doom-laden cliché. As if that's not enough to convince us that Hester would be well advised to cancel the milk, there's a funereally-garbed "ghost-fancier" who informs her that he will be back at dusk.

Hunter lets rip with an explosive display of scalding scorn and furiously embattled spirit. She's undoubtedly impressive, even if her performance seems constrained by the effort of keeping up a thick but approximate brogue that at times sounds like a contender for the Dick Van Dyke award.

What is disappointing is not Hunter's portrayal, but Carr's sentimentalised makeover of the Medea character. The great shaping event in the life of this heroine was, we learn, abandonment by her mother at the age of seven. So here, it's less the desire for revenge against her former lover than fear that her daughter will suffer the same pangs of loss when forcibly parted from her that pushes Hester to slit the poor child's throat.

She even manages to have a conciliatory woman-to-woman chat with Carthage's new bride. Hunter communicates the plaintive undertow well, but the moral ambivalence and the savagery of the original are lachrymosely diluted.

There's an anarchically funny wedding-reception scene, replete with the groom's possessive mother busy taking photographs, and a doddering priest who becomes so lost in memories of his own near-marriage that he forgets how to say grace. It's a pity that Carr uses her sense of the ridiculous so selectively.

To 26 February (0870 060 6633). A version of this review has appeared in some editions of the newspaper

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