Woman and Scarecrow
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
Woman and Scarecrow is a dreamy, if sometimes bitter, play about death and the perspective that it can throw upon the life which it is bringing to a close.
The unnamed Woman, played by Fiona Shaw, is a lapsed Catholic only a few hours from death, possibly from cancer. Four two hours, we observe both her pain and her thoughts, although both are subverted by a clear, hallucinatory medicine offering comfort and nightmares in equal measure.
As one is supposed to do, she spends her final hours contemplating the highs and lows of a life cut short in her forties but also raging valiantly against "the dying of the light", as Dylan Thomas put it.
Marina Carr is hardly the first author to make the deathbed a focal point for a play, her Irish compatriot Sebastian Barry did so in Our Lady of Sligo and, ignoring the bed, one could argue that Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis covers similar ground too.
Her variation on the theme is to introduce a dreamt-up alter ego, Brid Brennan's Scarecrow, who represents the heart and passion that was so often suppressed throughout a life in which pleasure has constantly been subsumed by the efforts of bringing up eight children with an absentee husband.
The two sides of the same person play power politics as Woman, who is far from ready to leave her earthly existence, is helped to remember lovers and children and her own childhood days.
We also get appearances from a pair of relations. Peter Gowen plays Him, the least faithful of husbands who, even as his wife lays dying, has his mistress in the car outside, presumably with the engine running.
He goes to some trouble to justify his wholly unjustifiable behaviour but provides an element of humour becoming excessively jealous to find that while he was enjoying his birthright as a philanderer, so was the little woman who should have been slaving away at home.
The second visitor is Woman's Catholic fundamentalist Aunt Ah, played by Stella McCusker. She is the person who stepped in to act as surrogate mother after the real one died giving birth to a baby brother who also failed to survive. Her strict attitudes come across as pure comedy particularly since her bedridden charge carries on a conversation with the invisible Scarecrow right through.
The action primarily takes place in the protagonist's mind, although it is played out on a set designed by Lizzie Clachan consisting of a large traditional black box with deep-pile bedroom carpet and colour beyond black and white provided only by a grey nightdress worn by the flighty Scarecrow.
In language that varies from the poetic to the coarse, Marina Carr paints a portrait of a feisty woman who did not ever have the opportunity to enjoy a fulfilled life but had more fun than her relations could credit.
The device of splitting a person's character in two can be both illuminating and entertaining in circumstances where one might expect unremitting gloom. In particular, when Scarecrow jousts with an invisible monster in the bedroom wardrobe, the play achieves a level of high comedy.
Fiona Shaw is well up to her usual high standard as the bed-bound Woman, convincing both with pain and in the moments of happy, reflective remission. Director Ramin Gray could possibly have forced the pace a little more but is graced with a cast all of whom play their parts with the greatest skill.
Woman and Scarecrow is an unusual play on a painful if popular dramatic subject and provides enough intensity and humour to justify a visit to the Royal Court's studio space, particularly for those who enjoy Irish plays or the acting of Fiona Shaw.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher