Portia Coughlan at Almeida Theatre
A masterfully off-kilter performance from Conversations with Friends star Alison Oliver is the whirring centre of director Carrie Cracknell’s revival of Marina Carr’s revelatory 1996 play, with Cracknell’s accomplished ensemble oozing treachery and tragedy whilst breathing some very dark laughs into this sensorily arresting Irish Gothic tale.
In the 1996 play, Melissa Sihra writes that Carr “journeys deep into the rural Irish Midlands where language and landscape reflect the emotional terrain of the central character”. The rock-strewn banks of the Belmont River erupting into the living room of Portia’s ill-kept country home – courtesy of Alex Eales’s arresting set design – succeeds in evoking the fracturing of Portia’s psyche, torn between her tumultuous obsessing over the river and her long-dead twin, Gabriel (an obsession bordering on the incestuous, we learn) and her railing against the life of domesticity within the confines of her rural wifedom. Oliver’s Portia is by turns jarringly unsteady and woefully despondent, imbued with a compellingly frenetic physicality. An inconsolable anti-heroine whirling irresistibly towards her own demise, the mythical, otherworldly bond that exists between twins consumes Portia, drawing her to the banks of the Belmont River where she lost her brother Gabriel fifteen years before we set our scene, on Portia’s 30th birthday.
Cracknell takes up Carr’s mantle of challenging culturally oppressive perceptions of maternal instinct with force in this assured production, grounded by Portia’s ability to incisively articulate her rejection of domesticity and motherhood. Though she is continually beseeched by her beleaguered husband Raphael (Chris Walley) to care for her three sons, who cry for her offstage and unseen, Portia stays away, explaining to Raphael that she had better not, for fear she may dash their heads against a wall or throw them through a window.
Composer Maimuna Memon’s soulful, synth-laced score, recurring between scenes, takes an elegiac turn when accompanied by Archee Aitch Wylie’s plaintive vocals as the ghost of Gabriel, Portia’s drowned twin and her eternal torment. Guy Hoare’s sparse lighting plunges the stage into a portentous perpetual gloam.
Kathy Kiera Clarke and Fergal McElherron’s comic timing is spot on as Portia’s no-nonsense sex worker aunty Maggie May and affable uncle Senchil Doorley, while Sorcha Cusack draws out the dark humour in Carr’s writing as the rambunctious and relentlessly callous wheelchair-bound grandmother Blaize. Portia is capable of humour too, declaring to one of her occasional local paramours that she would take a jigsaw over sex any day. These moments of levity support the weight of a doom-laden plot. Soaked in melancholy, fraught with bitterness and bound by sorrows and secrets passed down through generations, at the centre of this mesmerising story Portia invites us into her half-life – the only kind she is able to live without Gabriel, and without whom, finally, the burden of life itself takes on an unbearable weight.
Images: Marc Brenner
Portia Coughlan is at Almeida Theatre from 7th October until 18th November 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.