Thursday 19 September 2019

Woman Undone: The long, hard road from vodka to here

Getting sober: a hard lesson from Mary Coughlan

Mary Coughlan and Molly O'Mahony in Woman Undone. Photo Simone Rudolphi
Mary Coughlan and Molly O'Mahony in Woman Undone. Photo Simone Rudolphi

Emer O'Kelly

It may be deliberate that the singer Mary Coughlan appears almost as a spectator in Woman Undone, a stage production of the story of her own life. Certainly, one is left with the impression that, despite finally claiming to have attained sobriety and emotional equanimity, she still feels the emptiness of her earlier years.

Emotional emptiness is the inevitable concomitant of alcoholism, and Coughlan’s story, as put on stage by Brokentalkers’ Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan, has her smothering her misery and loneliness from her early teens by disappearing into copious quantities of vodka. Narcotic addiction would soon follow.

There was, it seems, plenty to run away from: a controlling father who saw parental love as the duty of beating his obstreperous daughter; churchly figures whose guidance involved merely an admonition to find peace and happiness by doing as one was told; a too early sexual initiation at the hands of a much older man and later a series of boyfriends unable to cope with her needy flamboyance.

Add in an attempt at suicide by slashing her wrists, and a car crash  that nearly killed her at 19, after which her father had her committed: “He’s taking me to the madhouse... because he can’t cope”.

That’s at the core of Woman Undone, with dancer Erin O’Reilly playing the part of Coughlan, literally from birth, while the musicians’ group Mongoose, Ailbhe Dunne, Cara Dunne, Molly O’Mahony and Muireann Ni Cheannabhain, camped up in male attire, are the men who are the authors of Mary’s destruction.

It’s an entertaining way of presenting the issue, but nonetheless its elaborate format is somewhat distracting. Again, this may be deliberate to blur the question that is only asked late into the production: where was your mother in all this?

“She was absent,” snarls the “real” Mary. We the audience – as Mary did – later learn that Mary’s mother was in fact sick.

The attractive, almost minimalist, musical score is composed by Valgeir Sigurdsson, with the lyrics (and text) by Coughlan herself and her directors. Indeed, Coughlan fans will probably be disappointed that she sings so little throughout, but when she does, it’s the old, belting Mary Coughlan in fine fettle.

The production has been funded by the Arts Council, Dublin City Council and Wicklow County Council, and the programme carries referral sources for the Samaritans, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Connect, so it may have been undertaken more as a sociological project than an artistic one.

Of course, if that is the case, the involvement of the Arts Council is questionable: it is not a social agency. However, the fact that art, even slightly too elaborate art, predominates in Woman Undone, makes it theatrically worthwhile. It is certainly more truly artistic than the too frequent projects where various people merely talk/whinge about themselves and present it as theatre.

Woman Undone is at Project in Dublin, who are co-producers with Brokentalkers, and will be at Mermaid in Bray on Thursday.

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