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  • Chris O'Rourke

Audrey or Sorrow

Aisling O'Sullivan in Marina Carr’s Audrey or Sorrow. Photo by Ros Kavanagh


No contemporary Irish woman playwright, with the possible exception of Deirdre Kinahan, has enjoyed more productions in recent years than Marina Carr. 2024 looking to continue that run with not one, but two new works at the Abbey Theatre as part of its Gregory Project. A celebration of 120 years of the National Theatre, and of the contribution of Lady Gregory, featuring new works exclusively by female writers. If one of the Abbey’s Associate Artists being awarded two prized production slots has raised heckles in some quarters, seen as depriving other women writers of an opportunity (male writers already out of the running, being excluded from the entirety of the Abbey’s 2024 celebratory programme), it can feel like a moot point. With the opening of Carr’s latest work Audrey or Sorrow, a co-production with Landmark Productions, the first horse in The Abbey’s Gregory Project has already bolted. And what a horse of a different colour it is, Carr’s wonderful dark comedy about dead and dying children.

Marie Mullen and Anna Healy in Marina Carr’s Audrey or Sorrow. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

If Carr’s work is frequently informed by the Greeks, in Audrey or Sorrow she throws her reference net further afield to include The Tibetan Book of The Dead, Irish mythology, Catholic practices along with various cultural references to the Underworld. Yielding up a supernatural hotchpotch in which dead or unborn babies haunt a house unseen. Under Caitríona McLaughlin’s astute direction what could have been a pick and mix mess coheres into its own unique thing. Knowing when to let go, where to rein in, how much and for how long, McLaughlin makes the often incomprehensible hugely engaging, eliciting strong performances across the board. Marie Mullen (the bossy Mac), Anna Healy (the bewildered Grass), and Nick Dunning (the boyish Purley) brilliantly channelling their inner children. More Ghosts than Greek tragedy, the scene stealing trio like to dress up, have tea parties, draw cathedrals and talk about the fourth member of their troop, Audrey. Katie Davenport’s divinely wild costumes and Jamie Vartan’s superb set hinting at a Mad Hatter’s tea party at times. Vartan’s stairway to hell, or some liminal limbo, echoing A Matter of Life and Death with stairs suggesting a portal between worlds. Darkness descending as a child’s coffin is carried downstairs followed by a woman in black, and not for the last time. Patrick Martin’s beautifully realised David, a troubled father having lost two children, becoming estranged from his wife Maria, a hard working Zara Devlin making compelling a half baked character who claims she’s being haunted by the ghost of her dead sister, Audrey. But is Audrey a menacing memory, or a deadly demon?

Marina Carr’s Audrey or Sorrow. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

To Carr’s immense credit not only does she manage to craft a dark comedy from a tale of dead children, she also juxtaposes the maternal instinct to clutch a stillborn child and will it back to life with the less maternal desire to be rid of the same child, even unto death. Both Maria and her Mother, a superb Aislín McGuckin, speaking to the dark as well as the bright side of motherhood. Devlin’s Maria spending less time thinking about her dead child so much as fearing what others think of her. Is she a child killer? Were her children’s deaths natural? Were they caused by the ghost of her dead sister, Audrey, fulfilling an ancient curse? The sins of the sister being visited on their children? A static dinner party serving up expositional hindsight only muddies what are already opaque supernatural waters as Father, a convincing Howard Teale, tries make sense of the confusingly nonsensical. Not helped by the play’s tone, which makes its attempts at terror hard to take seriously.

Patrick Martins and Zara Devlin in Marina Carr’s Audrey or Sorrow. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

With Carr’s convoluted tale presenting ghosts before we ever meet people, it suggests their existence independent of Maria’s imagination. Ruling out possibilities like schizophrenia as causes for her children’s deaths. Ghostly possibilities enlivened by the eponymous Audrey, who first enters like an abused Cinderella being victimised by her three ugly siblings only to confusingly flip into a wicked stepmother role, all rage and hate and overbearing bitterness. Aisling O’Sullivan strutting with sound and fury as the sultry demon-child become demonic ghost, harnessing the soul’s dark energies in a breathtakingly brilliant performance. Sinéad Wallace’s evocative lights and Sinéad Diskin’s gorgeously cinematic score adding the finishing touches to this ambitious and brave production.

Marie Mullen, Anna Healy and Nick Dunning in Marina Carr’s Audrey or Sorrow. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

If Audrey or Sorrow can confuse even as it coheres, Carr is to be admired for taking the risk into what, in many ways, is not new territory so much as old territory explored in a new way. More unsettled than unsettling, lacking in emotional punch, it compensates by allowing glimpses of a playfulness not usually associated with Carr. Like Wednesday Addams telling jokes. Yet the darkness, the grief, the guilt, the hauntings are all still there. They’re just not the whole story. One quick aside. At the risk of stating the obvious, with Audrey or Sorrow Marie Mullen reminds us why she is a national treasure. In a superlative cast, Mullen leads the way with an extraordinary performance honed from decades of detailed performances. Looking as if she sips from the fountain of youth, the energised Mullen shows just why she is a living legend.

Audrey or Sorrow by Marina Carr, a Landmark Productions and Abbey Theatre co-production, runs at the Abbey Theatre until runs until March 30.

For more information visit The Abbey Theatre or Landmark Productions


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