sat 22/06/2024

Portia Coughlan, Almeida Theatre review - atmospheric revival of Marina Carr's bleak 1996 drama | reviews, news & interviews

Portia Coughlan, Almeida Theatre review - atmospheric revival of Marina Carr's bleak 1996 drama

Portia Coughlan, Almeida Theatre review - atmospheric revival of Marina Carr's bleak 1996 drama

Haunted by the ghost of her brother, Alison Oliver's depressed Portia is on a path to self-destruction

Scrapping with Mother: Alison Oliver as Portia and Mairead McKinley as her motherMarc Brenner

In 1994, the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin commissioned Marina Carr to write a play to celebrate its centenary. She walked the wards, met the new mothers, and wrote in a hospital study.

Who knows what the commissioners were expecting, maybe something more upbeat, but what they got was a harrowing portrait of a young mother in the grip of depression. It came to the Royal Court in 1996 when Irish playwrights were all the rage. Nowadays, it’s the Irish novelists and not the playwrights that make the headlines.

The main character is called Portia and she lives in Belmont, but that’s where the comparison with Shakespeare’s play ends. Here, Belmont is in the Irish Midlands not Italy. Shakespeare’s Portia had a father who believed that surface glitter was unimportant. Carr’s Portia is pushed by her father into a marriage with the richest man in the county, rather than encouraging her to go to college. The play has more in common with a Greek tragedy than a Shakespearean comedy.

Portia, played by Alison Oliver (pictured below), is sozzled by 10am on her 30th birthday. She’s almost comatose, stretched out on the sofa in her comfortable living room. In Alex Eales’s design, the back wall has been punched open, and through the gaping hole one can see the banks of the Belmont river, a place that is never far from Portia’s mind. It was there that her twin brother, Gabriel, committed suicide just after their fifteenth birthday. The intensity of their relationship was such that her mother says in her thick Midlands accent: "Chem ouha tha womb clutchin’ yar leg an’ he’s still clutchin’ ud from wherever he is." Whenever Portia is on her own, the ghost of her brother (Archee Aitch Wylie) appears to her. He sings Maimuna Memon’s haunting songs, specially written for this production, the beauty of which provide some relief from the bleak events that occur.

Portia’s hunched misery sees her lash out at her family who stream in to wish her happy birthday. Incongruously dressed in denim shorts, she constantly strokes her neck as if someone or something is strangling her. The climax of a grim two days occurs at the end of Act One. Then the play rewinds in Act Two, as an improbable number of skeletons tumble out of the cupboard, jostling for fresh air, and her state of mind becomes more and more explicable. Portia is not a likeable character - Carr’s text suggests that she is crueller than Oliver makes her - but you gradually feel the weight of her sorrows as she struggles and fails to defeat what she feels is her inevitable fate.

It is not just her relationship with Gabriel and her lingering guilt. They, of course, weren’t identical twins, but she still feels as if she has lost a limb, living in limbo, somewhere between life and death. There’s also the stifling community in which she lives. She loves and understands the landscape, but not the people. Her family expect her to behave like a dutiful housewife and mother, but she feels alienated from her sons. In her nightmares, she imagines killing them like an Irish Medea. Her father mourns the loss of a son to take over the farm. Then there’s the ogling nature of the men she grew up with, who refuse to accept that she has "allas found sex ta be a greah leh down". She tells the local barman, who fancies his chances, that "you’re the kinda cowbiy as gets shoh i’that first scene of a bad western."

Portia Coughlan, Almeida Theatre_Alison Oliver_ Credit. Marc BrennerIt’s the women who stand out. Kathy Kiera Clarke’s warm Maggie May Dorley, Portia’s aunt and a retired sex worker, who is married to the devoted, fussy Senchil (Fergal McElherron). Marianne Scully, Portia’s anxious mother, played by Mairead McKinley, who is lacerated by Portia both verbally and physically. She’s so appalled by the state of Portia’s house that she immediately starts mopping the filthy floor. We learn that early on in her marriage, she was sent to her room with her two children every evening by her husband’s mother, Blaize Scully. It’s as if there is a genetic streak of misery in the family.

Carrie Cracknell’s atmospheric production is dark and subdued, literally dark given Guy Hoare’s sombre lighting. There is, I think, more black humour in Carr’s play than Cracknell uncovers. The evening springs to life when Sorcha Cusack’s Grandmother rolls on in her wheelchair and spits venom in all directions. She maybe evil, but there’s a vitality when she’s onstage, which is all too often missing elsewhere.

Carrie Cracknell's production is dark and subdued


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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