I saw the original production of Portia Coughlan at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin in 1996 and was mesmerised. I had never seen anything like it. That production, starring Derbhle Crotty and Bronagh Gallagher, transferred to the Royal Court in London but the play wasn’t staged again for nearly 20 years, before a new production in the Old Red Lion Theatre in 2015.
The titualar Portia Coughlan is turning thirty. She is haunted by the suicide, fifteen years previously, of her twin brother Gabriel, who keeps calling to her, asking her to join him in death. She has become a shell of a woman, horrible to her husband Raphael and absent to her children, as she doesn’t trust herself to care for them.
She drinks all the time in a desperate attempt to escape her pain, and also has affairs; but there’s no escaping the tug of the past and that terrible loss half her lifetime ago. The play is essentially a Gothic ghost story. Portia is still as inextricably locked together with Gabriel as she was with him in the womb. She knows she was supposed to die with him fifteen years ago and the fact that she didn’t is slowly killing her and destroying those around her.
Portia believes that she can only feel whole again in death and all the time she hears the interminable flow of the river that took her brother.
The play works on a central device, which if I was to mention it, would be a real spoiler, but suffice to say it is strikingly structured in a way that explores time and place with devestating clarity.
It’s hard to review the reading experience of a piece of work that is meant to be performed and watched and Portia Coughlan is more difficult to read than most. It is written in sometimes impenetrable vernacular, which does however, eventually create it’s own poetic flow.
Portia: These days ah looches ah Raphael sittin’ opposite me i’tha armchair. He’s allas tired, hees bad leg up an a stool. addin’ up that booches from tha factora, lost in heeself, an ah’ thinches tha pair of us migh’ as well be dead for all tha jiy we knoche ouha wan another. The kids is aslape, tha house creachin’ liche a coffin…sometimes ah chan’t brathe annamore
Carr perfectly captures the Offaly dialect with it’s gutteral, flat utterances, but it can make for a difficult and slow read at times. Another difficulty for the reader, or the audience, is to be able to empathise with a protagonist who is so clearly bent on self-destruction, but Carr manages to ellicit sympathy for Portia’s uncontrollable emotions.
The play alludes strongly to the classical Greek traditions (and also hints at the influence of The Merchant of Venice), where females were strong and fierce, although often to the detriment of themselves. It is a strange paradox of Portia Coughlan that such a powerful play has been wrought out of the life of someone so powerless.
Portia Coughlan contains an epic quality exploring as it does the clashes between men and women and the living and the dead. The language becomes poetic and the narrative a sense of lore. It is a timeless and masterful play about grief, self-loathing and the havoc that can be wrecked on the psyche by societal expectations.
(a whisper) Come an little brother, come an, show me wance more tha fah river dark of yar heart
Portia Coughlan is supposed to be getting a revival in the Young Vic in London, starring the wonderful Ruth Negga, which would be unmissable if it does not become another victim of Covid-19 cancellation.
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