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The Cattle Raid of Cooley is a mediaeval Irish epic, less than well-known outside the Emerald Isle. Suffice it to say that it involved mayhem about the ownership of a bull, and suffice it even more to say that in the hands of Michael Keegan-Dolan and his spiffy Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre it has been transmogrified into The Bull, which is a savage, scarily hilarious, kill-or-cure-and-don’t-mind-your-language extravaganza, now at the Barbican (a rat-maze which I find scary and not in the least hilarious, save in its pretensions to decor).
The staging, like Keegan-Dolan’s other vivid productions, seems an off-shoot of the accursed tanz-theater that lumbers all over Europe like Frankenstein’s monster. (And like the monster, European tanz-theater is made up of bits of long-dead things, and is a menace to us all.) But Keegan-Dolan has energy, a beady eye, a flaring sense of the ridiculous, and a no less bright, if despairing, honesty.
The Bull – played over several tons of fine dark peat, attended by a lot of percussive racket, generously outfitted with simulated copulation, a sometimes-nude pianist who also appears as a dog, and gives a delicious ten-second impersonation of Josephine Baker (J’ai deux amours…), the ceaseless and automatic use of the F-word and the C-word (just like the playground of some tough comprehensive) – is vastly entertaining, and at its heart, disconcerted by contemporary Irish manners.
The structure is kaleidoscopic. The theme, as in the original legend, tells of a powerful family led by the dazzlingly vile and irresistible Olwen Fouéré as the matriarch from hell, which seeks to buy or steal a bull from a tribe of aggressive bumpkins. Its exposition is allusive, a theatre-piece where matters Irish are given a brisk duffing, from nouveau-riche pretensions (golf is maniacally featured) to bog-bound prejudice. Vicious assault with anything that comes to hand (shears, knitting needles, spades) is commonplace. Greed, lust, the horrors of Riverdance, orotund speech, and a sideways look at faith – the matriarch addresses her Maker with a catalogue of sorrows and ends
with a desolate expletive about the state of her hair – are all mocked to perdition.
The cast is uniformly splendid: each characterisation has the awful ring of truth. The production is grandly allusive, and the
resonances of the tale are fascinating. The final minutes, when the cast indulges in percussive frenzy while rain falls, is hard to take, but in everything else this is a bold and bullish piece of angry wit. Vaut le voyage.
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