PORTIA COUGHLAN – REVIEW – ALMEIDA THEATRE

Carrie Cracknell’s revival of Marina Carr’s rich and mythical tragedy sees its titular character fall into a long-festering wound in a revival that leans into the lyricism of its backdrop.

Credit: Marc Brenner

It’s Portia’s 30th birthday, and she spends it drinking whiskey and lingering at home, in the pub, and by the Belmont River where she goes to commune with her sadness, and hook up with rough-hand fling, Damus (Charlie Kelly). Carr’s play, originally performed in 1996 and considered a classic of modern Irish literature, presents a cast of local characters, each of whom appears with varying degrees of welcome to build a picture of Portia’s grief-stricken and dissatisfying life.

She is at once the most upstanding of all of them, being married to a wealthy factory owner, Raphael (Chris Walley), a mother to two children, and intuitively in touch with both her feelings and the boggy terrain of the valley. But she is restless, unable to settle into the domesticity of her life, and longs for the sense of completion she felt with her long-since-deceased twin brother Gabriel.

The script unfolds with expert control, particularly in the second half, with the more shocking and unusual backstory elements unfolding as the origins of her unrest. The play’s unusual structure splits tragedy in two, leading to some excellent moments of dramatic climax before the interval, and while this adds a tension to the second half, the ending does suffer from feeling somewhat lost.

Alex Eale’s wide-open bomb blast of a set weaves easefully between the interior and riverside, but at times this can swallow up the cast and limit the amount of intimacy in the domestic scenes. Other features of the production conceal the story’s clarity, such as the difficulty of seeing Portia’s dress at the end of the first half. Archee Aitch Wylie’s sung musical interludes, composed by Maimuna Memon, present Gabriel as distinctly feminine — presenting an interesting perspective on Portia’s sense of identity with him, but making the audience’s connection with the character less strong.

Credit: Marc Brenner

The cast is unanimously capable and handled expertly under Cracknell’s direction, with visceral performances capturing the resentment and prejudices of this impoverished, Irish Midlands community. Alison Oliver’s ferocious and unpredictable central performance delivers a true star turn, as the play unearths the poison that lurks in the cracks of her family and the world around her. Sorcha Cusack’s foul-mouthed grandmother exceeds all bounds of vitriol, and Kathy Kiera Clarkes’s straight-talking, feminine wisdom brings a lightness that feels much needed.

This play is a glistening example of family drama and contemporary tragedy restating its relevance to our world. Its exploration of siblinghood, class, and sexuality is layered and embedded in a real world that speaks from an authentically female point of view. If certain aspects of the production fail to align with the script, headily strong performances and a clear, visionary direction ensure that it is still an intriguing staging of a rich and important play.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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