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Playwright Mark O’Rowe has created a grim and ugly world populated by gruesome characters locked in ferocious struggle with interlocking experiences of physical and emotional violence. Crestfall introduces three women touched by the pervasive malignancy of a rural Irish town, particularly that emanating from a local thug named Inchy and his assorted associated heavies.
Olive Day (Aisling O’Sullivan) struts across the stage, snarling and prowling, clad in a tight-fitting short-cropped one-piece and heels. She is vulgar, uncompromising, and sleeps with whomever she chooses. Her husband (never seen but often described), ‘Jungle’, is a gentle, passive soul who takes abuse from everyone, much to his wife’s disgust and contempt. They have one child, actually the son of the aforementioned thug. When Jungle learns of the baby’s true parentage, he unleashes his rage upon Olive is a savage beating which seems to her his first act of true self-assertion.
The two subsequent monologues fill in and fill out the story. The second introduces Alison Ellis (Marie Mullen), middle aged wife of one of Olive’s paramours who has a run-in with Inchy’s thugs and tells her part of the story of Jungle’s revenge. Mullen is also dressed in black, but remains mostly center stage. Her character’s rage is mostly repressed, sublimated into a desire for love and affirmation. She too has a son, for whose safety she fears, not least of all because of a growing sense of distance between them in a world populated by ravening dogs and the rotting carcasses of animals from the nearby slaughterhouse.
The final section brings the story to a conclusion when junky prostitute Tilly McQuarrie (Eileen Walsh), earlier described as a victim of a beating issued by Olive at a local bar, is revealed to have been the whistle blower whose phone call to Jungle has had ever-more dire consequences. Narrating her own tragic tale of abortion, abuse, and addiction as she goes, she describes the bloodbath which ensues when Jungle gets hold of a pump-action shotgun and storms Inchy’s house in a murderous rage.
Crestfall is an unrelenting wallow in the sickness of fear and hatred which results in the symptom of violence. It is a story of depravity which sinks ever deeper into the murk of souls which are barely recognizable as human. It comes as little surprise when Tilly is almost raped by a dog, only to be rescued by its owner who first demands oral sex from her, then commands her to perform it on the same animal immediately thereafter. Bestiality in every sense of the word seems only inches beneath the surface of the relationships depicted.
Realism could not contain this world, nor could it accommodate O’Rowe’s fierce language. Neil LaBute writes in the program of "Big, swirling tornadoes of beautiful words, held together only by his sheer will and the desire to push more and more language onto the page." The monologue format gives the playwright as much rein as he needs to draw the audience into the nightmare world he creates with his alliterative, rhythmic style. There is skill to it, to be sure, and there is linguistic beauty amid the terrors he depicts. His is a strong and clear voice, and one more and more consistently to be reckoned with in contemporary Irish theatre. The only problem with this is the inevitable collapse of characterization in the face of a consistent authorial vision. Though each of the performers is distinctive, their speech does not vary. What is said on stage is clearly O’Rowe’s controlled but evident anger with a world in which even the redemptive climax is haunted by visions of a bloated horse corpse tied up with barbed wire and chased by barking dogs as it floats down the river.
It is interesting that in describing what is mostly a masculine world, O’Rowe has chosen female personae. Themes of motherhood, desire, and betrayal run through the story, but this is a long way from The Vagina Monologues. Of the three actors, Walsh is most precise in her delivery, Mullen the most subtle, and O’Sullivan stamps her authority on the stage from her first appearance. It is to these performers’ credit that they leave such strong individual impressions, aided no doubt by the experienced hand of director Garry Hynes (Big Maggie). Francis O’Connor’s set plays games with space, reducing the stage to a narrow band (as he did with his set for Sive) by virtue of painted and tilted metal overhangings which draw the eye into the enclosed and ugly world of these characters. Significant lighting cues from Rupert Murray and suggestive sound effects by Paul Arditti contribute to the nightmarish yet paradoxically pragmatic tone.