Portia Coughlan review: Eerie tragedy addresses sexuality and motherhood

New production ensures this unforgettable story remains searing in its relevance

PORTIA COUGHLAN

Abbey Theatre
★★★★☆

It is Portia Coughlan’s 30th birthday, but she is not in the mood for celebrating. Her twin, Gabriel, is dead 15 years and she can hear him calling her from his watery grave. By the end of the first act, she will have joined him. By the end of the play, we understand that the spell cast upon her life by their twinsomness has deeper roots in her family’s history. The husband, Raphael (Marty Rea), whose name she took may be solid, an unblemished innocent, but Portia’s blood is rotten. Just ask her poisonous granny Blaize (Barbara Brennan), her servile father Sly (Liam Carney), or her frigid mother Marianne (Derbhle Crotty). The rot was there before Gabriel died, before Portia and Gabriel were even conceived. The structure of Carr’s play, which reaches its narrative climax 40 minutes in, ensures we never forget the inevitably of this family’s fate.

In Caroline Byrne’s trenchant new production, the Coughlan home is presented like a cutaway bog. The sunken living room of Chiara Stephenson’s set is framed by high loamy walls that slope down to the river at the front of the stage, a shallow trough that has deep metaphorical depth and physical allure for both Portia and the world that Carr creates with uncanny clarity. Paul Keogan’s undulant lighting design shimmers across the rust-coloured sparkling surfaces, but it is Mel Mercier’s eerie musical composition that makes the Otherworld that calls to Portia tangible.

Denise Gough, starring as Carr’s anti-heroine, is both fragile and feral. In one scene she lets Senchil (Gary Murphy) rock her like a baby in a slow waltz; in the next she pounces upon her mother like a wildcat. Her fatalistic misery would be difficult for the audience to bear, however, without the wicked levity offered by characters like one-eyed Stacia Doyle (a perfectly pragmatic Imogen Doel) and viperish vixen Maggie May (a knowing and vulnerable Anna Healy).

When Portia Coughlan was first performed 26 years ago, many of the play’s themes – incest, female sexuality, the challenges of motherhood – were taboo.  Byrne’s excavation of the play ensures it remains dramatically effective and searing in its relevance.

Runs until March 16th

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