BWW Reviews: CHAROLAIS Grazes on Great Drama
It's every girl's dream. When Siobhán, the amorous woman played by Noni Stapleton in her agricultural drama, risks saying "I love you" to her farmer beau, he responds with utmost sensitivity: "I better see to this Charolais". The French-breed heifer has captured his time and attention, much to her murderous disgust.
The macabre tone of Stapleton's play is established from the outset. Siobhán enters wearing an apron covered in blood, gripping a blood-stained carving knife. "The woman who invented the best way to killing animals was a vegetarian ... she had something wrong with her brain, she wasn't stupid". It's an opener that alludes to un-cannibalistic motives, as well as a fear of intellectual inferiority.
Sent to the farm on an employee-training course, Siobhán's lust for solidly-built Jimmy is coupled with a desire to learn about his livestock, to help and understand the workings of the place. However, his gammy-eyed mother Breda is quick to point out her flaws: "Jesus wept! Leave it to us now!". Imaginably, Siobhán considers another name for her kill-list.
Digging up the dark pastures of rural Ireland, Stapleton conveys the fears of isolation and repressed emotion that sometimes makes romance difficult. She also captures the vibrancy of the turf shed, the playfulness of the hay bales where Siobhán and Jimmy go for a tumble, until interrupted by the curious Charolais munching on straw.
In a surreal twist, Stapleton frees her hair from its ponytail and stoops over to play the role of the cow. In the rose-coloured rays of Colin Maher's lighting, the creature releases a mix of melodious French vowels and "moo"s, going on her daily promenade while lustfully imagining intimacies with a bull. It may very well be all in Siobhán's mind, a beast radiating sophistication and grace, exposing insecurity about the woman's own femininity. However, the Charolais plays in her own drama, that of her distressed discovery that she's been artificially inseminated. Stapleton's themes of lust and loneliness have so imaginative a range as to cross species.
Some of the wisdom of John B. Keane rings here, who was just as good at presenting ruthless abuse in rural Ireland as able to let us understand the people who commit it. When Breda bites off Siobhán's head for guessing that the diagnosis of a sick cow is tuberculosis, it prompts memories of empty fields and a dying herd. "Farming is tough but at least you have your animals". When they're gone, the farm becomes a terrifyingly lonely place.
After the action reaches a striking and violent conclusion, there is a sense of new life in a depraved place. Artfully, Stapleton's play is just as pastoral in bringing land and people together.
Charolais is touring until until 15 October. For more information, see the Bigger Picture Projects website. Photo: Sally Anne Kelly.