Dublin Theatre Festival 2018: The Mai
Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine
Witch, crone, mother, virgin, wife, whore. Female archetypes that Marina Carr sets out to challenge and subvert in the powerful and prescient “The Mai.” First produced in 1994, “The Mai” was not only a play of its time, it was a play ahead of its time. And a play which, if some of its references seem a little dated today, is still deeply and powerfully resonant.
In Decadent’s current production, director Andrew Flynn makes some strong choices that position “The Mai” in some new and interesting ways. Following The Mai and her family, as well as her returned husband Robert, during some key days in 1979 and 1980 at her new home on Owl Lake, Carr’s taut script is stepped in family history, story telling, and the riches of landscape. A landscape Ciaran Bagnall’s lighting and set design sets about subverting. Indeed, Carr’s landscape in which energies and forces seethe beneath the surface becomes non-existent. Instead, energy, like these women, is trapped within a world where nature is twisted into wooden floorboards and towering beams, the world outside awash in cold light beyond the large glass window. Indeed, Bagnall’s evocative use of light, and Carl Kennedy’s brooding music design, hint at the freezing of these undercurrents underneath the unseen landscape these women have become alienated from. Throughout “The Mai” the pull between binary tensions looms large. Family and self, motherhood and independence, the pagan and the Christian, the trapped and the free. The empty chair and music stand become evocative of presences that are more felt in absence, be they departed husbands, old stories and memories, or your own neglected talents and lifeblood. Any of which can bring momentary joy or utter destruction.
If four generations of women, trapped in lives, roles, and stories passed down as an invisible legacy, find blood is thicker than water, it may not be quite thick enough. If most share a desire for romanticised, and often unworthy men who usually go away, some go so far as to resent being mothers and would consign their children to hell for just one more day with the man they love. Indeed, it’s an old story, one often passed from larger than life mothers down to their broken and neglected daughters. From Stella McCusker’s earthy, centenarian Grandma Fraochlán, to Marion O’Dwyer’s uptight, scene stealing Julie. From Derbhle Crotty’s superbly understated The Mai, to Rachel O’Byrne’s near invisible Millie, hovering like a ghost, eavesdropping on memories and thoughts, like a child overhearing conversations they were never intended for hear. Around which Meave Fitzgerald’s Beck, Joan Sheehy’s Agnes, and Lesley Conroy’s Connie both challenge and support the status quo. At the centre of which an impressive Aidan Redmond’s self serving, solitary, stone-in-their-shoe Robert, brings them closer together yet drives them further apart.
With the freezing of these women’s vital energies there’s a coldness and restraint at the heart of this production. One whose volcanic eruption between The Mai and Robert only ever releases dark plumes of smoke, never quite finding the lava. Under Flynn’s direction, Carr’s tale of mad proud women focuses on the manner of their entrapment rather than on that which is entrapped. If this lends itself to less power and visceral immediacy, it also offers a fresh way to look at Carr’s “The Mai.” One which foregrounds the shackles, societal, self imposed, and hereditary, which women are often enslaved by. And from which they crave release. Providing Stockholm Syndrome hasn’t taken too deep a hold.
“The Mai” by Marina Carr, produced by Decadent, runs at The Civic Tallaght as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2018 until September 29 before touring.