Review: On Raftery’s Hill

Rose Aitchison 26 October 2017

cn: rape, abortion 

I was not entirely prepared for quite how deeply unsettling On Raftery’s Hill would be. Even having composed a preview that explicitly states, in the words of director Eimear Ryan-Charleton, that ‘the show deals primarily with sexual relations within a family, including difficult questions about whether the horrifying can become consensual, whether ignorance is innocence, and how, within the context of familial abuse, one can ever find the original perpetrator’, I was still bowled over by visceral portrayal of abuse and violence knotted around the Raftery family in the intimate setting of Corpus Playroom.

The show opened with Ded Raftery (Oliver Rhodes) coming into the main house from the cowshed where he has been living, shaking and unable to communicate coherently with his sisters, Sorrel (Megan Dunne) and Dinah (Niamh Curran). The three beautifully set up the coming tensions between the characters, with Dinah as the exasperated carer, Sorrel as the beautiful and innocent young one, and Ded falling apart under the weight of their father’s behaviours. The entrance of the patriarch, Red Raftery (Patrick Wilson) and his ‘friend’ Isaac Dunn (Max Harrison) solidified and exacerbated the tension, with Patrick Wilson impressively dominating the space in small gestures and gruff intonation. The character of Isaac, however, while well played by Max Harrison, was from the off seemingly just in place to act as moral foil, telling Red in the bluntest terms of the play that he shouldn’t treat his daughters as he does, and that ‘as a Christian’ he (I’m paraphrasing) thinks rape is bad. Not exactly the most subtle writing, and moreover, Isaac even states that Red ‘doesn’t like’ him, and that they’re not friends, and yet he is a relatively constant feature. Kevin Fletcher’s character Dara Mood also falls into this category, as he is cast almost entirely as Sorrel’s potential saviour, explicitly saying he wants to look after her, and take her away from the hill and her father. But Sorrel ultimately doesn’t want to be saved, because she is unable to see clearly what she needs to be saved from. Phoebe Segal added much needed comic relief as Shalome Raftery, the senile Raftery grandmother who perpetually announces she is leaving for her hometown and is never returning to the godforsaken hill, only to make it to the end of the lane and have to return for a biscuit. This role comes to a peak in the final scenes, when Shalome dons Sorrel’s wedding dress for her travels, and goes out and soils the pure white dress irretrievably with the filth of Raftery’s farm. 

Yet these moments of comedy were fleeting, and the overall atmosphere of the play was one of extreme repression and pain, as each of the characters attempted to ineffectively help one another – Sorrel tries to help her brother Ded, Dinah tries to protect Sorrel from their father, and Red tries to help Ded (if in a very disturbing way, grabbing him by the face and shouting.) Patrick Wilson played the conflicted and disturbed Red well in these moments, flicking from softer inflection to unbridled anger and physical violence when his children (in his opinion) disobey or disrespect him in his house. The first half culminated in a terrifying representation of rape, with Red threatening Sorrel with a knife and screaming that he’ll ‘show her how to gut a rabbit’, tearing her clothes off as she shouts for her siblings to help her. The stage was blacked out before the action of rape occurred, but the depiction was nonetheless terrifying, and heightened by the actor’s physical statures – Megan Dunne looked incredibly vulnerable with Patrick Wilson towering a full foot or so over her. This, I suppose, was the ‘best’ depiction of such a scene that I have seen at Cambridge as it was well directed, acted and had an uncomfortably strong effect. The aftermath of this rape constituted the rest of the play, with Dinah admitting that she has been sleeping with her father, in some ways consensually, from the age of twelve, having been introduced to the idea by her own mother, and Ded proceeding to become more and more unstable, and somewhat incoherently discuss his own complicity in what happened to both Dinah and Sorrel. I cannot tell if this incoherence is an intentional feature of the play, or if the direction in this particular production failed to make it clear, but I left the theatre unsure what exactly it was that Ded had done to Dinah – did he also rape her? Was there some idea of a baby perhaps being aborted or killed? It was hard to say. Either way it seemed deeply unpleasant and that was certainly conveyed.

The costuming (designed by Georgia Humphrey) and staging (designed by Gabriella Gormley) added to the play’s atmosphere of repression excellently. Dinah was costumed plainly, sporting an apron over a plain dress throughout, Sorrel in a light blue full-skirted dress, which transformed into a shapeless dressing gown and oversized jumper after her rape, and Ded looked unwashed, and proceeded to look even more unwashed, and lose his shirt towards the end of play, which served as an opportunity for him to reject his father’s ideals – refusing to wear his father’s shirt and therefore physically wear his weight. Dara and Isaac in comparison remained constant throughout, fully and well dressed, while Red removed layers to reveal his character (he insidiously began to unbutton his shirt before the rape scene) and put his jumper/jacket back on to present face to Isaac – a carefully executed visual reminder of the lies used to protect isolated familial abuse. This seems most especially in Ireland, where there have long been scandals of child abuse and familial abuse covered by the well-presented front of Catholicism, both within the church and the state. The set was a reminder of this, with crucifixes and framed drawings of what might have been older members of the Raftery family adorning the walls and shelves. This added to the feeling of claustrophobia and visually pressed home the notion of tradition, both familial and religious, that dictate the traditional Irish hush-hush attitude towards this kind of abuse.

Overall, the play was well executed, and has an important social message that victims of long term familial abuse often lose the ability to distinguish right from wrong, and at that point levels of abuse become complex with degrees complicity. That said, while director Ryan-Charleton stated that she wanted the complication of the play to come through, with aim of not ‘utterly condemning, or utterly endorsing’ any of the characters, I find it hard to not utterly condemn the character of Red as the origin of the pain and violence in the play. If you have the stomach for it, On Raftery’s Hill is an excellent production, on at the Corpus Playroom until the 28th October.