Review by Sam Waite
Already heralded as a modern classic and highlighted by several outlets as a top show to catch this autumn, Portia Coughlan has opened at London’s Almeida Theatre with raised expectations. Would Marina Carr’splay about destructive families and all-consuming grief be as affecting now as it was nearly three decades ago? Would the troubling themes have the same level of impact on a 2023 audience, or would years of brutal subjects and visceral presentations have dulled our responses?
The first evidence that Portia Coughlan will still engage is the set – with no curtain, the two-levelled staging is immediately visible and connects us to the titular character before we meet her. A simple living room, malleable enough to become a dining room and the floor space of a pub for later scenes, opens to reveal the rocky bank of a nearby river. With torn wallpaper and exposed brick framing the outdoor scene, Alex Eales’ set design makes it apparent that Portia’s thoughts are always torn between her current situation and a childhood incident on the riverbank.
Carr’s play finds Portia on her 30th birthday, celebrated by those who love her but seemingly unable or just unwilling to really love any of them. She doesn’t feel she can love her unseen children, and seems only to tolerate the wealthy husband she married purely because his name, Raphael, reminded her of her late twin, Gabriel. A tragedy and a deep exploration of prolonged grief, Carr’s text finds Portia and her family digging through old memories and unearthing new, unsettling layers to existing pains. Much of Carr’sdialogue, when delivered by the other characters who are eternally at odds with one another, is often very funny – the snappy bantering and ease of creative insults helps to counter and enrich the tragedies at the story’s heart.
Where the supporting cast are all strong, bringing depth and history to comparatively one-note roles, the crowning achievement of the piece belongs to its leady lady. Alison Oliver’s Portia is wounded to the point where happiness seems an impossibility, but she brings enough genuine energy to the fleeting moments where she feels something close to it that we can understand why those around her don’t simply give up and allow her to wallow in the misery they’ve all worked hard to move past. Oliver makes the character’s pain multi-levelled and ever shifting, building a compelling arc out of a series of revelations that explain the sadness and anger, rather than deepen it.
Indeed, director Carrie Cracknell is under no illusions that we’re watching a woman descend into her anguish. Portia continually looks away from the conversation at hand, and gives up on any attempts to hide her pain rather than giving in to it for the first time – Cracknell lets us know from the outset that her heroine comes to us already shattered, and has balanced this frailty and muted persona with the behaviour of others. Cracknell has her cast get in one another’s faces, leaning into melodramatics and sitcom-ish buffoonery, serving to highlight that any matching of their energy from Portia Is artificial and short-lived.
Guy Hoare lights the piece dimly, giving little distinction between day and night in the indoor scenes. This tells us not only about the tone of the play, watching the overbearing darkness of the text, but also the way the character lives her life – with no interest in keeping her depressive tendencies at bay, Portia likely wouldn’t bother with opening curtains or turning on more lights than is required. This touch of naturalism serves to deepen the narrative and serves as a parallel to less literal, more internal choices. Giles Thomas’s equally muted, naturalistic sound design periodically gives way to an echoing, sombre piece sung by Portia’s late brother. Beautifully sung by a never-fully-lit Archee Aitch Wylie, haunting original music by Maimuna Memon is allowed to flood the auditorium and echo through the scenes – both literally and metaphorically – to represent the imagined haunting of one twin by the other.
Carr’s narrative, confrontational and blunt in its more difficult subjects, holds up as a powerful piece of theatre. Through her words, the characters alternately turn on and comfort one another, as infidelity, incest, suicide, and familial abuse all weave in and out of the storytelling. Aided by the bold work of Kate Waters, fight director, and Ingrid Mackinnon, movement, the more tempestuous moments are frighteningly visceral and immediate. Carr ought to be proud of the work she has created, and to be reassured that Cracknell, Waters and Mackinnon are helming this interpretation, as her explorations of familial trauma and the impact of clinging to the past share an immediacy and richness that transcends the decades since Portia Coughlan’s debut.
Startling, genuinely disturbing, and anchored by Alison Oliver’s incredible central performance, Carrie Cracknell’s Portia Coughlan cements the play as a modern classic worthy of such an anticipated revival. Sidestepping any potential issues of less developed supporting players or possible confusion between acts (no spoilers here, but it all makes sense in context!) the production moves from strength to strength, firmly leaning into what could only be a tragedy, while still allowing for a resolution and an emotional catharsis to aim toward.
Portia Coughlan plays at the Almeida Theatre until November 18th
For tickets and information visit https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/portia-coughlan/
Photos by Marc Brenner