Suicidal tendencies

"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

David Hennessy talks to Susan Stanley, the Kilburn-based Dublin actress playing in the lead in Portia Coughlan, the Marina Carr drama that has not been seen for almost 20 years

“I think people are quite discombobulated at the end of it because it whacks you over the head and it’s relentless,” says Susan Stanley of Portia Coughlan, currently playing at the Old Red Lion. A haunting tale from the dramatist who brought us The Bog of Cats and Ullaloo, Susan’s character finds herself in limbo, yearning for deceased twin brother and unable to connect to anything or anyone still living.

“I think one of the quotes in 1996 was, ‘it hurts to look at it. But it has to be seen’. I think that’s a really good way of summing it up.

“It’s this woman who is in between worlds, in between this world and the next and she doesn’t fit anywhere. You see her on her 30th birthday start to go into this descent and then the day after she takes her own life.

“She’s grieving for the loss of her brother who drowned. They made a suicide pact but she got scared and didn’t follow through so she is feeling guilty and hates herself and been grieving for the last 15 years for her dead twin who she was extremely close to. It’s very dark and grey and dank.”

Susan laughs as she becomes aware of how her words may sound: “Talking about it, I’m like, why are we doing this play? Why would anyone want to see this or do it? But it’s brilliantly written by Marina Carr who is one of Ireland’s brilliant playwrights.

“But why do we go to see a Greek tragedy? Why do we watch Electra? Why do we watch MacBeth? Why do we watch these plays like Hamlet?

"She's quite vivacious and strong and sexy and beautiful and ugly and all of those things," Susan says of her character
“She’s quite vivacious and strong and sexy and beautiful and ugly and all of those things,” Susan says of her character

“It’s brilliant but it’s full on. There’s lots of lovely little relationships within that and she’s quite vivacious and strong and sexy and beautiful and ugly and all of those things, there’s the whole range of things that Portia has so it’s a brilliant character to play, but it is dark.”

Taking on such a role or putting on a production of Portia Coughlan must require a lot of thought. It has not been performed since it was at the Royal Court Theatre in 1996: “Yes, that’s why it hasn’t been done for 20 years, I think. Because it’s very dark but also because it’s very difficult. I think that’s why it hasn’t been done, because it’s epic. The director Bronagh (Lagan)’s extremely brave and ambitious doing this show in a tiny pub theatre with eleven cast members.

“I also want to say that there’s loads of comedy in this. The woman who plays my gran, Anne Kent. She’s in a wheelchair and she’s an old Irish bitch and she’s absolutely hilarious. The actress who plays her (Portia) is just fantastic. She comes in and it’s her birthday and someone says ‘happy birthday’ and her first line is, ‘birthdays, load of bollocks’.

For the full interview, see the May 9 Irish World.

Portia Coughlan is playing at the Old Red Lion until May 23. For more information, go to


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