Portia Coughlan is in hell and sees no way out. The only future is a further depth of the Hades into which she believes she was born.
Marina Carr has an ability to portray horror that grabs you by the throat and drags you choking into the centre of it. It’s an extraordinary power for a writer who superficially seems to set herself to deal with “ordinary” tragedy, the sort of thing which most people are familiar with. But Carr takes tragedy as the precipice where unimaginable torment begins.
Portia Coughlan wakes up on her 30th birthday haunted by the spirit of her dead twin brother Gabriel, as she has been haunted since he drowned himself exactly 15 years before. She even married her husband Raphael because he too has the name of an archangel: Raphael whose love can only be expressed in “things”, exemplified by the diamond bracelet gruffly and ungraciously offered to his wife for her birthday.
Except Portia doesn’t want things: she wants her soul back, or at least the right and courage to take it to where Gabriel waits to claim it.
When I saw the first production of Portia Coughlan at the Peacock in 1996 (this current version is on the Abbey stage) I was struck by a strange fact: that all of those who can’t understand Portia’s hell are physically maimed, as though she has laid a curse on them: Raphael is lame; her best friend Stacia has lost an eye; her grandmother, the malevolent Blaize Scully is confined to a wheelchair, her aunt Maggie May carries the scars of beatings from clients during her days as a London prostitute.
Only those who partake in the road to hell live in a kind of survival mode: Her lover Damus Halion, the publican Fintan Goolan who is her sexual whipping boy, and her parents, Marianne and Sly, doomed by an unspoken and unspeakable secret that they don’t even understand concerning their own births as they watch in despair their daughter’s increasing self-flagellation. They claw at her pain, but walk away from the wounds they inflict.
Portia is cursed: Marianne and Sly know it without knowing that Gabriel is waiting in the underworld to reclaim her. She and her twin are one, intertwined in the womb, one flesh even in life, living in an agony of resentful hatred of their neediness. And for 15 years, Portia has carried the burden alone, pacing the riverbank daily where Gabriel waded into the swirling water.
The play could be called a portrait of the last days of an unhappy woman, unhappy enough to take her own life. Instead, it is almost a fantasy of doom, a curse and a call across the divide between life and death, with death destined always to be the winner, offering no possibility of heavenly redemption.
Director Caroline Byrne gives the impression of having taken the play between her teeth, determined to tear every inch of gothic savagery from it, and she succeeds.
Anything less and it could have been uneasily farcical. But it’s chilling from first to last, thanks to relentless emotional pressure that threatens to explode but just remains close enough beneath boiling point to scald an audience but leave it to contemplate the torn flesh.
Denise Gough is a devastatingly forlorn savage as Portia, the ensemble support perfect in allowing her dominance without in any way downplaying individual roles.
Derbhle Crotty, who created the role of Portia in 1996, plays the morbidly bewildered Marianne, swinging from terror to rage to despair with consummate skill, while Anna Healy as the survivor Maggie May still offers layers of endearing vulnerability.
And while the play, thanks to Carr’s vision, belongs to the women, Marty Rea delivers layers of emotional destruction as Raphael. Barbara Brennan, Imogen Doel, Liam Carney, Gary Murphy, Fionn O’Loingsigh and Jamie Beamish complete the cast, all of them spectacular.
Chiara Stephenson’s set is a triumph of ingenuity, hemming the characters in behind the lapping river, as a central soaring staircase suggests with horrible irony a stairway to heaven.
It’s superbly lit by Paul Keogan, adapting to every mood and moment. Mel Mercier provided music score and sound design, and movement director Megan Kennedy provides an extraordinary fight sequence, while Jack Phelan’s video design summons up a haunting evocation of lost tranquillity.
Portia Coughlan runs at the Abbey Theatre until March 12.