FringeReview UK 2023
With music and lyrics by Maimuna Memon that reach from threnody to Country to Enya, the 61-page play with a backbeat of an epic turns epic; though at two hours 20 it feels vaster, never longer.
Alison Oliver’s appeared in the outstanding revival of the year till now: Dancing at Lughnasa. Now she leads the other one. If you see one play this month, make it Portia Coughlin.
Writer Marina Carr, Director Carrie Cracknell, Set Designer Alex Eales, Costume Designer Evie Gurney, Lighting Designer Guy Hoare, Sound Designer Giles Thomas, Music and Lyrics Maimuna Memon, Musical Director Tim Sutton, Movement Director Ingrid Mackinnon, Fight Director Kate Waters.
Casting Director Amy Ball CDG, Costume Supervisor Peter Todd, Dialect Coach Brett Tyne, Assistant Director Hanna Pascal Keegan, Assistant Designer Helen Herbert
Till November 18th
There’s a vast ragged hole blown in the living room-cum-bar in an Irish midlands home: it gives on to the Styx. Carrie Cracknell’s revival of Marina Carr’s 1996 masterpiece Portia Coughlin comes to Almeida till November 18th.
With music and lyrics by Maimuna Memon that reach from threnody to Country to Enya, the 61-page play with a backbeat of an epic turns epic; though at two hours 20 it feels vaster, never longer. If delivery’s comic, its message is despair: a woman who can’t love even her three sons. Like Cracknell’s previous production here in 2016, Ella Hickson’s Oil, there’s an atmospheric density, a murk that carries the story-telling.
Why is it then eponymous Portia Coughlin nearly 30 years on proves a character so gripping, we’re on her side; even rooting for her when we can’t? Achingly funny is one reason. A battered audience explode with relief at knife-twisted jokes. Alison Oliver though is at the core, scorching through her third major role this year (Women, Beware the Devil also at the Almeida, Dancing at Lughnasa at the National). Though along with Memon’s music, she’s not the sole reason.
It’s Portia’s 30th birthday. Superficially she has it all. She’s married to rich Raphael Coughlan (Chris Walley) not because she wanted money, but because his angelic name recalls her dead twin Gabriel (Archee Aitch Wylie) who died the day after their 15th birthday. Wylie, tenebrously haloed in Guy Hoare’s matte lighting (exquisitely dim through net curtains) won’t let his sister go. He never speaks but looks on.
Oliver judders into being. Lit with a hopeless grey dawn, this Portia’s half-drunk but wholly articulate, in the deadpan, kerned accent voice coach Brett Tyne elicits from the cast. But Portia uttering words like “subtext” shows a reach beyond the men and most women she knows.
Oliver responds to antagonists or occasional allies through the venturi of her speech-patterns. Expression varies from automaton-like through awakened scorn, trapped rage, bleak poetry, violence, despair and hilarity.
As much imprisoned by no-choices her community forces on her, Portia’s even less free than Hedda Gabler. Or despite parallels, Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House. Her “I’m past the pleasures of the body” shuts what fleeting excitement her world once offered.
Long-time off-and-on lover Damus Halion (Charlie Kelly), suitor barman Fintan Goolan (Conor MacNeill), both excellent in patronising desire and short-fused disdain, reduce Portia to: “There’s one story that interests me” Fintan declares, “the story of you with your knickers off.”
Alex Eales’s set is some slow avalanche of hill and stream crushing into the living space. With window one end and at the other a small bar (opened, it’s Fintan’s High Chaparral), Hoare’s lighting and chairs shift to admit a garishly dingy pub. Though Giles Thomas’ soundscape admits ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ in one joyous flash of an evening, it’s Memon’s music and Wylie’s haunting voice that craft a sonic Escorial: vast and remorseless as those cascading hills.
Told to stop grieving, Portia’s exactly doubled her lifespan since, made wrong choices, including sexual. But in a sense they don’t matter. Portia, from Belmont, County Offaly, strains the quality of mercy Carr suggests, but ultimately defines it. Other reasons for Portia’s predicament emerge late in a play that tackles patriarchal command to forego university and marry by father Sly Scully (Mark O’Halloran); sexism, layers of incest, grieving, inter-generational conflict at several levels.
Blaize Scully, Sorcha Cusack’s f-ing, feud-enriched grandmother fires up blame as she undermines her son Sly and unaccountably has it in for Marianne (Mairead McKinley); let alone twins alive and dead. One offshoot is how McKinley and Cusack illuminate personal civil war amongst psychic carnage. There’s hilarious, bitter three-way flaying. And though Sly doesn’t want Portia reminding them of Gabriel, O’Halloran’s indelible with recrimination over why gifted singer Gabriel stopped his expensive singing-lessons.
Marianne Scully tries fragile spurts of loving a daughter who burns with accusation. It’s a family where each blames each with telling evidence. McKinley and Oliver interact with more complexity and violence even than O’Halloran. We’ve had The Motive and the Cue this year, but this play‘s structurally the cue and the motive. The arc and reveals burn through to a resolution that elsewhere might feel satisfying. Here, you’re wrung out.
Between fight director Kate Waters and Ingrid Mackinnon’s movement, moments of violence are viscerally explosive the closer the relationship: eddying round stillness as the day drops through the dim stage.
Though bleak there’s skirling laughter with those who love Portia’s wild choices, her complex self. Aunt and former sex-worker Maggie May Dorley (Kathy Kiera-Clarke) is uproarious. After one bruising night she discovered her saviour in the one decent, diminutive man in the show: husband Senchil Doorley (Fergal McEiherron). Though Senchil’s trying to slow down Maggie May’s fatal smoking cough in some of the most touching dialogue of the evening.
And there’s “Cyclops” one-eyed Stacia Doyle (Sadhbh Malin) Portia’s only friend and visa-versa, in Malin’s wry creation. Though truths blister out, they also emerge in pub whispers, as Maggie May confides in Stacia. There’s duetting, Carr’s skilful resort to conjunctions you’d not expect, each taking us further.
“My logic” has Portia claim final words with Walley’s scorned Raphael. All evening he gains grudging cubits. Inadequate to Portia’s needs Raphael nevertheless understands more than we or perhaps Portia realises. Walley intimates Raphael’s tragedy, exhausted by disdain, almost a single parent.
Reaching out to Fintan, Portia recalls myth: “Gabriel used to hear the girl when the river was low; said she sounded like an aria from a cave.” Fintan might be deaf, but neither Portia nor we can be. Excepting That Face, Oliver’s appeared in the outstanding revival of the year till now: Dancing at Lughnasa. Now she leads the other one. If you see one play this month, make it Portia Coughlin.