Portia Coughlan

Marina Carr
Aria Entertainment
Old Red Lion

Ben Mulhern as Raphael Coughlan and Susan Stanley as Portia Coughlan Credit: Claire Bilyard
Ben Mulhern as Raphael Coughlan,Veronica Quilligan as Maggie May Doorley, James Holmes as Senchil Doorley, Karen Cogan as Stacia Diyle and Anne Kent as Blaize Scully Credit: Claire Bilyard
James Holmes as Senchil Doorley and Veronica Quilligan as Maggie May Doorley Credit: Claire Bilyard
Christopher Dunne as Sly Scully and Susan Cummins as Marianne Scully Credit: Claire Bilyard
Conan Sweeny as Fintan Goolan and Alan Devally as Damus Halion Credit: Claire Bilyard
Susan Cummins as Marianne Scully and and Anne Kent as Blaize Scully Credit: Claire Bilyard

Portia Coughlan is a woman with an obsession: her bond with her twin brother Gabriel.

“When God was handin’ out souls he must’ve got mine and Gabriel’s mixed up,” she says, “either that or he gave us just the one between us and it went into the Belmont River with him—Oh, Gabriel, ya had no right to discard me so.”

But Gabriel died fifteen years ago, drowned in the Belmont River when they were both fifteen. He still haunts her, though haunts isn’t really the right word, and Keith Ramsay as the dimly-seen image of Gabriel and his singing haunt this play.

That makes this a ghost story and the way in which Portia seems trapped, fate-driven, in a life that she never wanted has elements of Greek tragedy. It is a play that seems to want to be powerful and serious but there is also a comic element bubbling beneath. Its mixture of Yeatsian poesie, family in-fights, controlling women, alcohol and even a lovable “eejiot” character in James Holmes’s uncle Senchil Doorley, that could so easily become a send up of cliché stage Irishness.

This production by Bronagh Lagan plays down any comedy. It is a blend of naturalism and symbolic framing to present Portia as a tragic figure, with a balletic watery sequence at a crucial point soon after which the chronology moves into flashback.

Susan Stanley gives a strong central performance without playing for sympathy or understanding. As a teenager, she married the best catch in the neighbourhood. Now on her thirtieth birthday he gives her a diamond bracelet that's cost him five thousand.

He still dotes on her though she shows little love for him. She neglects their three children that she never wanted (saying she’s afraid of hurting them), still has secret sex with old flame Damus (Alan Devally), flirts outrageously (if not more) with other men including barman Fintan (Conan Sweeny), leaves dirty dishes piling up in the kitchen and knocks back the whisky almost non stop.

Can this really all be due to the loss of the twin with whom, she declares, she had sexual contact when they were still in the womb? There is much more to that story.

Ben Mulhern plays husband Raphael, hard-working factory owner, and you can’t help wondering why he ever wed into her dysfunctional family. There is matriarch grandma, foul-mouthed Blaize Scully (forcefully played by Anne Kent) tongue-lashing son Sly (Christopher Dunne) and his loathed wife Marianne (Susan Cummins), Portia’s parents.

There’s aunt Maggie May Doorley, former Kings Cross tart, who married a man who found her beaten-up by a client. He was slow but devoted Senchil and Veronica Quilligan and James Holmes make a believably happy couple to set against all the others.

Best friend Stacia seems to be there just to provide Portia with some one she can talk to. Though she’s lost an eye and has a set of different coloured patches to wear over it, Karen Cogan is given little more from which to create character.

Nik Corrall’s setting puts a symbolic river on stage throughout but this production doesn’t really conjure up the Belmont that Portia never stops to think of whether it's flowin' rough or smooth, was the bank mucky or dry, was the salmon beginnin' their rowin' for the sea, was the frogs spawin' the water lilies, had the heron returned, be wonderin' all o' these and a thousand other wonderin's that river washes over me”.

Perhaps it needs that sense of poetry to make the disparate elements of this play work together.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton