Every day, almost 30 years ago, Marina Carr would walk through wards of mothers and babies at Dublin’s National Maternity Hospital and hunker down in the room they’d provided to write this play. The hospital had commissioned it, and who knows what they were expecting – a theatrical ‘One Born Every Minute’, maybe – but the result surely exceeded any expectation.
Now Carr’s best-known work, ‘Portia Coughlan’ seems blown in from another plane. Set in the Irish Midlands and using the area’s dialect, it brings incest, domestic abuse, infidelity, sex work and motherhood under its wise eye and creates a world that is equal parts mystical, mythical and crushingly domestic.
Who better to bring the play back to the stage than director Carrie Cracknell, whose previous Almeida outing, ‘Oil’, was a masterclass in mingling epic and intimate. Cracknell makes us see the world through the deadened eyes of Portia. She’s married to the richest guy in town and it’s her thirtieth birthday. All very rosy. But she’s still stuck in a welter of grief from the death of her twin brother Gabriel 15 years earlier and, without him, she seems half-dead.
It’s like Portia herself has designed the production: Alex Eales’s set is all homely up front – a sparse living room – with a huge hole blown into the back of it giving us a view onto bare, black rock, like a gateway into the underworld. Lighting by Guy Hoare is reduced to the bare minimum and then dimmed some more for good measure so that the cast appear almost in outline as spectral forms.
In that landscape Carr sets a story that seesaws between domesticity – talk of washing up and Digestive biscuits – and something otherworldly, ghostly, in touch with the afterlife. She puts in front of us a cast of characters all set on self-destruction in one way or another, whether through drink or self-denial; lies or too much honesty; choosing to live the way that a deeply patriarchal society demands or choosing to resist it. Every option leads us here: this bleak bog where you can almost feel the cold drizzle in the air.
It’s all so richly layered, not least the performances Cracknell brings out of a crack cast led by Alison Oliver, sullen and slumping, permanently drunk, but never comically so. ‘I’m past the pleasures of the body,’ she says in anguish, and you can feel it. It’s a drunken, abrasive performance of absolute despair, playing Portia with all that tense welling-up that comes before bursting into floods of tears.
Sorcha Cusack’s foul-mouthed, self-righteous grandmother is a highlight, as is Mairead McKinley as Portia’s stoical mother Marianne. Between scenes, keening folk songs sung by Archee Aitch Wylie as a ghostly Gabriel and composed by the ridiculously talented Maimuna Memon keep us hovering in that strange other plane. It’s a production brimming with sadness: Portia’s sadness at the loss of her brother, but Carr’s sadness, too, for a nation (a world?) that has so often reduced its women to functions of motherhood.