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  • Chris O'Rourke

Portia Coughlan

Denise Gough in Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan at the Abbey Theatre. Image: Ros Kavanagh


Many actors refuse to speak the name of a certain Shakespeare play for fear of bad luck. Their instinctive, or conditioned belief being they will incur the ill will of invisible powers. Trapped in a liminal space between life and death, Portia Coughlan is prey to such forces. Trawling through living as a way of dying, Portia's thirtieth birthday sees her undergo a psychic breakdown in which all that is hidden is made known. If Marina Carr's Portia Coughlan was brave and bold when first produced twenty-six years ago, it is arguably braver and bolder today. Accorded fitting justice in this ferocious revival, continuing the Abbey's ongoing relationship with Carr. A production honouring one of the most important Irish plays of the twentieth century.

Denise Gough in Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan at the Abbey Theatre. Image: Ros Kavanagh

If Carr's narrative is richly defined, the devil often eludes the details, with the whole refusing easy analysis. As the married Portia and her husband, Raphael, share a loveless birthday breakfast, the day unfolds as a mother, a whore, and a one eyed seer look to join the celebrations. Along with a belligerent crone, a violent father, a biscuit lover, barman, and a bad boy seeking sex. Never right since her twin brother, Gabriel, died fifteen years before on their birthday, Portia has become lost to herself. A woman dying to live, yet living to die, haunted by ghosts of the mind, heart, soul and blood. Belonging to this world and the next, living her sins as near to the truth as she can get.

Anna Healy and Imogen Doel in Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan at the Abbey Theatre. Image: Ros Kavanagh

Set in the Midlands, Portia's much loved Belmont Valley is less paradise lost so much as a halfway house between the gutter and the stars. A place darkened by secrets about the land and river. About sex and death. Incest and suicide. Of women drawn to men with musical voices. Of gunless cowboys strutting pathetically. Of deformities seen and unseen. Of family, history and gender repeating itself. Of dangerous relationships. Multiple prisms offering a multitude of impressions. Carr's script, like Portia, larger than any reductive explanation of it. A play about mental health issues? Sure. But you've missed the forest seeing only a tree. About a woman's struggle in a man's world. The special relationship between twins. Invisible forces that determine our destinies. The underbelly of life in a Midlands town. The plight of the artist. Again, all hit the target but miss the mark. Again, the forest and the trees.

Marty Rea and Denise Gough in Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan at the Abbey Theatre. Image: Ros Kavanagh

Under Caroline Byrne's meticulous direction, details are distilled with a demanding exactness, if reined in a little too tightly at times. Performances by Jamie Beamish, Barbara Brennan, Liam Carney, Imogen Doel, Anna Healy, Gary Murphy, Fionn Ó Loingsigh and Marty Rea prove exemplary for the most part. But the line between caricature and character can prove a thin one in comic moments, feeling less holistic and more like contrived comic relief. Chiara Stephenson's abstract, angular set might suggest a cavernous cauldron or a corner of hell, wherein wild energies are unleashed, but visually it resembles a drained swimming pool. Which, given Portia's relationship to water, isn't a great look. Indeed, the Belmont River seems less a river to the underworld so much as an industrial sluice, making for a big imaginative ask. Ensuring no imagination is required, Mel Mercier's score doesn't so much suggest Gabriel's voice as glaringly drag your attention to it, forcing the obvious in case you miss the obvious. Paul Keogan lighting and Jack Phelan's video design going a long way towards compensating for the subtle sense of mystery that's aspired to.

Derbhle Crotty and Denise Gough in Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan at the Abbey Theatre. Image: Ros Kavanagh

A superb Derbhle Crotty as Portia's mother, along with Marty Rea is his final scene, help underscore the plays pain and poignancy. Crotty superlative as Portia in the original production twenty-six years ago. As is a jaw droppingly invested Denise Gough today. To draw comparisons is an exercise in futility as both performers make strong, compelling choices. To have seen both, to see both actors together, is to be twice blessed. Gough's mesmerising Portia a woman past the point of no return, her rage against the dying of the light exhausting her. A walking wound that will not heal, trapped in a town, a past, a marriage and a body she cannot escape. Gough nothing less than extraordinary, looking emotionally spent by the time the curtain falls.

Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan at the Abbey Theatre. Image: Ros Kavanagh

If Gough, like Carr, excavates her soul, the viewer is denied easy voyeurism. For Portia Coughlan raises unsettling questions in a world where no one is blameless. The audience never allowed get too comfortable. The real danger lying in thinking you have figured her out. Like Hamlet, Portia refuses to be explained away, being a harrowing encounter. Elbowing you in the ribs and shaking your complacency. Treating you like dirt while loving you like there's no tomorrow. Embodying everything and its opposite, leaving you wanting to run, yet begging for more. Yet the minute you think you understand her, she disappears. Don't take my word. Check out Gough's Portia in one of the outstanding performances of the year. But be prepared to face the questions she'll ask of you.

Portia Coughlan by Marina Carr, presented by the Abbey Theatre, runs at The Abbey Theatre until March 16.

For more in formation, visit The Abbey Theatre.


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