The Irish Times - Thursday, December 8, 2011
The heavy-metal music playing as we enter the theatre lets us know we are not in the Gaeltacht any more, Toto. In fact, Fíbín’s Sétanta , a co-production with the Abbey Theatre, written and directed by Paul Mercier, is a dystopian spin on the Táin Bó Cúailnge story which combines mask, music and the Irish language with electrifying, if exhausting, results.
Mel Mercier’s pulsating score quickly inducts us into a seedy world of wrestling, wrangling and copulation as champion fighter – and outright cad – Sétanta ditches his pregnant mistress to return to his home, Eamhain Mhacha, in search of acclaim.
Once there, he discovers a society torn apart, with a puppet taoiseach in thrall to big business and a people untrusting and unwilling to accept any further hardship for the gain of others. As images of marching and looting citizens are spliced with condescending speeches and vulgar displays of excess, the modern parallels are clear. They are wrapped up, though, in a production that takes its mythical source and uses it not only as a metaphor for these unstable times but as a yarn from which to weave a gripping and unyieldingly violent evening’s entertainment. Actors double up at an alarming rate, flinging themselves around the stage while discarding and donning characters with a flick of one of Matthew Guinnane’s leering masks. Such is their commitment to each caricature that the changes are made credible.
The rapid pace of the play and the delivery of the text could leave an audience dizzy, a condition not helped by the multiple cannuint deployed and the richness of Mercier’s script, which is so pleasant to the ear it makes you wish you’d paid more attention in Irish class, to get the full nuance.
But the filmic direction ensures the emotions that charge the text are understood regardless of fluency, paradoxically keeping the audience on edge but not wanting to look.