Slaughter House Swan

May 26, 2010


Elizabeth Moynihan’s Slaughterhouse Swan, one of the few original Irish productions in this years Absolout Gay Theatre Festival, is an intriguing look at the rules of attraction, a tale of love and obsession in rural Ireland that takes a hard look at the steps and sacrifices one must take to be happy. It is full of lush, descriptive passages, brave if not brilliant direction and some brutal acting which undermines much of Moynihan’s good work.

The action takes place in Swan, the setting for many of Elizabeth’s plays(Walnuts Remind Me Of My Mother & The Cider Queens). It revolves around a butcher, who has reacted to the horror of his childhood trips to the abattoir by finding beauty in drag. His son Canais has returned home from Australia after a ten year absence, his appearance and personality altered by a vegan diet and a devotion to psychiatry. Which pisses his twin sister, Cepta, off no end,  her own marriage having ended in catastrophic circumstances. The mother  is never seen,  off on her annual trip to Lough Dourgh to find spiritual solace.

There was wonderful potential here for gripping and excavating drama. Why is it that women like Mammy never leave, even when their husbands behavior is having a catastrophic affect on the rest of the family? What prompted Canasis’ sudden departure? What kind of release is it that men like Daddy get from drag that they can’t find anywhere else? None of this is satisfactorily explored. This was a lost opportunity  to look at the topic of cross dressing in a hot bed of Catholicism, to explore the inner workings of a marriage between a religious fanatic and a transvestite and the trickle down effect it has on its product, their children.

There are some wonderful speeches that point to Moynihans keen eye for observation that, with some guidance, could lead to some really interesting theatre. Cepta’s description of her loveless marriage, her husbands medicinal odour and his habit of eating with his mouth open is beautifully written. Added to a later speech about her lover’s school tie providing a noose for her neck, and her condemnation for the months her lover hasn’t lived, this could have been really affecting.

But some of the performances are shockingly unfocused.  I lost count of the amount of  times Fiona Condon, as Cepta, said one thing and did another. She leaves the kitchen and claims to have had difficulty fining her tights. But the audience see her finding said tights, on the chair, with little difficulty at all. She claims to need more drink although she hasn’t touched the one on the table . And even though she has just been reunited with her twin brother for the first time in ten years she and Frank Mackey ignore the underlying tension with their rapid delivery,their  failure to observe the awkward silences and by overplaying their antagonism. There is much hurt here but little attempt is made to give the characters any pride within it.

Paschall Scott is much better as the transvestite father. In a role that could easily have tipped into caricature he is credible, affecting and genuinely interesting. Perhaps more thought could have been put into the character’s costumes- and he really should have learnt the words to the power ballads he sings- but he commits and brings compassion to a role that can not have been easy to pull off.  Sonya O’Donoghue too deserves credit for her small part, although it was superfluous, a revelation introduced too early in proceedings and which should have been disclosed naturally and not through a self conscious dream sequence.

There are some nice directorial touches- the split stage and the horror music and lighting at the start, which gave the piece a fantastic pulpy feel. But rather than utilise them properly,  showing us the horror on Canais’ face when he hears his father sing for the first time in ten years he is, instead, shrouded in darkness.

Elizabeth Moynihan is writing about characters on the fringe of our society and about topics that seem to fill our tabloids every day but never make it into a theatrical plot. For this she should be commended. But it needs to be gutted and cleaned out. Figure out what the play is really about and get the cast to commit to it.

As a first time director and in the early spurts of her creative juices as a writer Elizabeth has given us much to think and talk about. If only she could make some of her cast do the same.


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