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"It hurts to look at, but it has to be seen," is one description of Portia Coughlan
“It hurts to look at, but it has to be seen,” is one description of Portia Coughlan

By Leah Quinn

It is rare that a play can resurface triumphantly after 20 years away from the stage. Marina Carr’s play  Portia Coughlan has emerged from such an absence at The Old Red Lion Theatre under the direction of Bronagh Lagan.

The story of Portia Coughlan is a heavy one, laden with emotions and idealised memories of the past.  Set in the Irish midlands, Portia seems to have what many would assume to be the perfect family life. As a mother to three children and a well-kept wife to a loving and wealthy husband, it seems that Portia should be more than elated on her 30th birthday. However her overly romanticised recollections of the suicide of her twin brother Gabriel still constantly haunt her and dominate both her thoughts and actions.

Portia fantasises about death and her reunion with her twin. The audience is made aware of her many moments of deep  despair by the accompaniment of her deceased brother’s version of “She Moved Through the Fair ” delivered by a haunting young man behind a darkened curtain.

Portia is an Ophelia-type character, beautiful yet classically tragic. Her intimate obsession with the Belmont River, the place of her brother’s demise, becomes uncontrollable and manic which in turn affects her relationships with those around her.

Portia is played by Susan Stanley, whose piercing blue eyes and willowy mannerisms add to both the beauty and frenzy of the character.

The play deals with depression and hopelessness and so it is hard not to become somewhat drained as an audience member in such a small theatre. The constant heated arguments between Portia and her family can, at times, be both exciting and exhausting. This is softened occasionally by some very witty one-liners from her bitter Grandmother, played excellently by Anne Kent.

With it's dark themes, Portia Coughlan is not for everyone but it does provoke thought
With it’s dark themes, Portia Coughlan is not for everyone but it does provoke thought

The stage was small and simple, comprising of a kitchen setting and a small square filled with water-signifying the river. This worked well, given the limited space and the actors manoeuvred themselves skilfully around both sides, allowing the audience to truly imagine each contrasting setting.

However, it does not seem that Carr was ever setting out to create a fun-packed evening of theatre when writing this play. Her work raises the important question of why it is that we go to the theatre? Is it with the intention of improving our mood and to leave feeling entertained or does it take a more powerful play to teach us lessons and unmask harsh social realities we might usually avoid?

As plays go, this is certainly not one that everyone will enjoy. It’s script is littered with aggressive arguments, often with colourful language, and it’s characters are dark and past hope. This play will suit theatre-goers who enjoy being challenged, pushed to the limits and who have a taste for the dark and romantic.

Portia Coughlan plays at The Red Lion Theatre in Angel until May 23rd.


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