Rachel O’Sullivan and Heather Slevin review Portia Coughlan at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.
Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan is the story of a woman trapped under the dirt and waters of childhood loss. Dreaming of angels, Portia (Denise Gough) walks among the demons of her past, followed constantly by superstition and cursed blood. Joy only comes in pairs and she is always half an impulse away from Belmont River, the river that cuts through the lands of her father’s acres, and where her twin brother, Gabriel, met his end. Fifteen years after his death, she is still battling the weight of half a life being no one at all.
Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan is the story of a woman trapped under the dirt and waters of childhood loss. Dreaming of angels, Portia walks among the demons of her past, followed constantly by superstition and cursed blood.
Dealing with heavy themes of death, incest, inbreeding, betrayal, and delusion, the play follows the tale of Portia Coughlan. Starting on the day of her 30th birthday, the play opens to Portia drinking alone, with her husband, Raphael Coughlan, played by Marty Rea, reacting with disgust to see her drinking so early in the morning. From the get-go, it is clear their relationship is strained, from Raphael's comments on her drinking habits to the lack-lustre way she reacts to her gift of a diamond bracelet worth 5,000 euro. Throughout the play, the realities and causes for this strained marriage are revealed. From Portia’s affair with life-long friend, Damus (Fionn Ó Loingsigh), and their excursions to the Belmont River and the nearby boathouse, to her attempts to sleep with barman, Fintan Goolan (Jamie Beamish), it is clear she remains unfaithful to her husband. However, the strongest argument for their strained relationship comes as a result of her twin’s death.
Portia’s constant comparison between her current husband and her dead twin, quickly reveal that their relationship evolved past simply that of a brother and sisterly bond.
Portia claims that her and her brother were so close that she did not know where she began and where he ended and claims that the only reason she married Raphael was because he, like Gabriel, shared his name with an angel. Portia’s constant comparison between her current husband and her dead twin, quickly reveals that their relationship evolved past simply that of a brother and sisterly bond. Gough’s portrayal of Portia’s fall into mental instability is painful yet undeniably believable. Portia’s long, streaming, and poetic monologues remained engaging and emotional throughout, with the audience slowly coming to the realisation that her relationship to her twin was one of a sexual nature. Portia’s admission that she and her brother made love by the river bed from the ages of as young as five left the audience reeling, and the cast must be applauded for their individual portrayals of disgust. Combined with the symbolism, choice of set decoration, lighting, vibrations, and costume choices, this showing of the play gave huge life to Marina Carr’s invention. The choice to show Portia sleeping alone during several scenes where other members of the cast interact on stage is haunting, as she becomes an inescapable presence, unable to have her own time, reminiscent of the very typical Irish parenting style of ‘be seen, not heard’. The use of rising noise as Portia revisits her memories of Gabriel and his death leaves the audience with a sense that Portia is always on the verge of violence and threatened by the men she is around. Gough’s acting especially in a scene in which Portia attacks her mother, the rage in her voice clear from the way she accuses her mother of interfering with her and Gabriel’s relationship, wrestling her mother to the ground in her despair and anger, asking her why couldn’t she leave her and Gabriel alone, presumably to continue making love to one another, implying that her mother was aware of this. The plot of how deep the incest in this family goes even deeper than Portia and Gabriel, it being revealed that Sly Scully (Liam Carney) and Marianne (Derbhle Crotty) themselves are also siblings, sharing the same father but differing mothers. Portia and Gabriel’s incestuous relationship becomes therefore almost a reflection of the inbreeding of their own parents, and Sly’s reaction of disgust betrays his own feelings about his relationship to Marianne.
With an ingenious set, and making the absolute most possible use of the river and the symbolism of the stability of the Belmont during Portia’s life, this take on Portia Coughlan was harrowing yet highly entertaining. You can catch a showing from now until March 16th at the Abbey Theatre, and watch this incredible reimagination for yourself. Huge thanks to the team at the Abbey Theatre for inviting myself along to catch a showing, and huge applause to the cast, director, and entire team involved.