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Friday, November 11, 2022

Portia Coughlan review – blistering birthday tragedy of self-destruction | Theatre

It is not only the prying eyes of rural neighbours that make Portia Coughlan (Denise Gough) feel trapped. In Marina Carr’s blistering drama from 1996, the anti-heroine of the title feels bound for life to her dead twin, Gabriel, and to the Belmont river where he drowned, aged 15. Everything else in Portia’s life – her wealthy husband Raphael (Marty Rea), lover Damus (Fionn Ó Lionsaigh) and young children – is overshadowed by her obsession with Gabriel as the missing part of herself.

In Caroline Byrne’s new production, the bare interior of Portia’s expensive home ominously suggests a deep burial chamber, where we first see Portia on the morning of her 30th birthday. Apathetic and drained, she is already working through a bottle of brandy.

From L to R: Gary Murphy, Anna Healy, Denise Gough and Imogen Doel in Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan at the Abbey Theatre, directed by Caroline Byrne.
Lighter moments … (from left) Gary Murphy, Anna Healy, Denise Gough and Imogen Doel in Portia Coughlan. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

One of three plays described as Carr’s Midlands trilogy (including The Mai and By the Bog of Cats) Portia Coughlan’s preoccupation with fate, self-destructive desire and the spectral presence of the dead takes it into the realm of the mythic. Yet, though not written as a slice of realism, it touches on subjects that are still highly disturbing 26 years after its premiere: from sexual secrets passed on through generations, to incest and in-breeding; from misogyny to vicious social prejudice.

Harbouring resentments, Portia’s parents and grandmother (Derbhle Crotty, Liam Carney and Barbara Brennan) dig up the most hurtful things they can say to each other. In a production that tends to over-signal, Byrne’s direction of these ensemble scenes is in need of toning down, while set designer Chiara Stephenson’s rendering of the mysterious river as a narrow overflow channel seems visually awkward.

Carr’s decision to kill off Portia early on is a bold stroke that affords her the freedom to play intriguingly with chronology in the more subtle second half. Here, lighter moments in the pub with her aunt and uncle (Anna Healy and Gary Murphy) bring relief from the extreme bleakness, with Gough showing the softer side of Portia. Likewise, in a compelling scene where she tries to connect with the pained Raphael, we see the woman Portia might have become if she had ever had a chance.

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