The impressive centrepiece of Sabine Dargent’s spacious set for Brokentalkers “Woman Undone,” shows a red car crashed into a wall. If car journeys prove to be a recurring motif in this brave reimagining of the life of singer Mary Coughlan, the image of a car crash might well be said to define this production. For at its heart lies the searing tragedy of an abused woman sliced with so many wounds, and broken into so many pieces, it’s astonishing she’s even breathing. Yet scattered around this harrowing reality lies a fair amount of performative debris, along with the overwhelming sense that the victim has already left the scene. That what we’re really watching are glimpses into an aftermath as we rubberneck past trying to ascertain what happened. An uneasy marriage of theatre, text, music, and dance, “Woman Undone” might not deliver on all of its ambitious fronts, yet it still throws one killer punch that leaves you stunned, reeling, and struggling for breath.
Coughlan fans hoping to learn more about the woman dubbed the Irish Billie Holiday might need to manage their expectations. For it's made very clear from very early on that this is not about her years advocating for the rights of women, nor about her illustrious music career. Something it would've been nice to have known beforehand to avoid disappointed fans feeling tired and emotional. Instead “Woman Undone,” bearing no obvious connection to the 1996 movie of the same name, focuses on Coughlan’s harrowing and horrific experiences of sexual and emotional abuse which led to years of alcohol and drug abuse as she attempted to numb the pain.
Despite its moral urgency, theatrically “Woman Undone” gets off to a clunky, clumsy, and long winded start. Looking like the worse Village People Tribute Band ever, the all-female band, Mongoose, line up towards the front of the stage, each of the four singer/ musicians dressed as men and sporting a thick moustache. There are many good reasons for their gender bending, not least of which is a resonance with Coughlan’s own experience of being born a girl to a military father who was expecting a boy. Waiting patiently, repeatedly assuring the audience Mary will be joining them shortly, the brave musical quartet look decidedly awkward and uneasy with pauses feeling uncomfortably heavy. Meanwhile Coughlan performs her pre-show ritual backstage, burning sage, or smudging as it’s called, while everyone else waits for the ritual onstage to properly start. Presently Coughlan arrives, but the real star won’t be arriving till a little later on.
What initially feels like ritual re-enactment soon begins to resemble a Regression Therapy session played out to moody musical accompaniment, Regression Therapy being something Coughlan is known to have availed of in recent years. An often lacklustre script by Feidlim Cannon, Gary Keegan and Coughlan, frequently serves to offer a weak Q&A set-up so Coughlan can regress back to her childhood. Meanwhile the impressive Mongoose, namely Ailbhe Dunn, Cara Dunn, Molly O’Mahony and Muireann Ní Cheannabháin sing and play superbly, performing live Valgeir Sigurdsson’s cold, contemplative, often choral like score. As well as bravely playing a bishop, a soldier, a cowboy, and a man at a dance, wonderfully evoked by Sarah Foley’s costumes, even if all look a little stiff and wooden at times, as often does Coughlan herself.
While Sigurdsson’s ephemeral music proves evocative in places it often makes for an uneasy fit with Coughlan’s more robust and earthy vocals, sparingly used as they are here. A situation not helped by a lot of immediately forgettable lyrics by Cannon, Keegan and Coughlan. Uninspiring lines like those recounting the heaviness of remembering feel forced and forgettable next to those of I’d Rather Go Blind. Sarah Jane Shiel’s impressively balanced lighting design, and Jack Phelan’s profoundly effective AV Design, often projected onto an aluminium backdrop, play a crucial role in defining “Woman Undone’s” mood and texture. Even so, “Woman Undone” often doesn’t feel like it’s selling it. Until the arrival of a young dancer playing the younger Coughlan. In the end it’s not a subdued Coughlan, or even an impressive Mongoose who finally make “Woman Undone” sing, it’s dancer Erin O’Reilly.
Emerging from the crashed car in one of several visually stunning sequences superbly directed by Cannon and Keegan, O’Reilly staggers and jitters like a fledging gazelle, or Frankenstein’s bride, arriving stunned and silent into a world of monsters and men. Vulnerable, bewildered, an open heart that becomes an open wound, O’Reilly’s childlike Coughlan is a half formed thing, someone uninformed that will soon become deformed. Under choreographer Eddie Kay’s extraordinary direction O’Reilly delivers a stunning physical display that is as devastatingly powerful as it is often mesmerisingly beautiful. Indeed, O’Reilly’s physical and gestural vocabulary comes to carry the bulk of the expressive weight highlighting several inadequacies elsewhere. Her resemblance to Coughlan is remarkable, making moments when Coughlan takes care to her younger self far more poignant. Yet it’s a poignancy undermined by Coughlan herself, speaking and behaving with the emotional detachment of a professional nurse attending to a patient. A flicker of anger and a late in the day confessional on absent mothers aside, it could be anyone Coughlan is speaking to, and of, making the final shared moment feel flat. But by then a blood stained, hard drinking O’Reilly, often twisted and misshapen, yet always retaining a heartfelt, soulful vulnerability, has ensured we cannot forget the harrowing ordeals endured by the younger Coughlan.
For all her brave and brutal honesty in “Woman Undone” Coughlan doesn’t really wear her heart on her sleeve. She guards it pretty well in what is as much a selectively edited version of her life as it is a reimagining. Even her love for music is treated like a throwaway remark, as if she doesn’t want us getting too close. Which deflects Coughlan’s tale, in some respects, into one of an Everywoman for any woman who has ever been abused. Dealing less in exorcism, Coughlan seems determined to come to terms with her demons, which is perhaps why she emerges more as a survivor rather than a phoenix. In the end “Woman Undone” offers a harrowing and disturbing portrayal of sexual abuse built around one devastatingly powerful performance by Erin O’Reilly. Remember the name. On the evidence of “Woman Undone” you might well be hearing it a whole lot more.
“Woman Undone” by Brokentalkers, runs at The Project Arts Centre until November 24
For more information, visit The Project Arts Centre.