'Portia Coughlan' review – this taboo-busting portrait of inconsolable grief is a modern Irish masterpiece

Read our three-star review of Marina Carr's play Portia Coughlan, starring Alison Oliver, now in performances at the Almeida Theatre to 18 November.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Marina Carr’s 1996 play Portia Coughlan has over time acquired the status of a modern Irish masterpiece, and one can see why. In its taboo-busting, take-no-prisoners way, Carr’s portrait of inconsolable grief goes to dark reaches of the psyche one doesn’t often encounter.

But there’s no point denying that it’s also a bit of an ordeal, particularly as structured so that we are shown the ending halfway through and then leap backwards to see what grim psychic forces led the title character there.

Carrie Cracknell’s production approaches the text with corresponding rigour and severity, as befits the story of a woman approaching her wit’s end. The play is of a thematic piece with Cracknell’s own, superlative revivals of Medea and A Doll’s House and even with Bizet's Carmen, the opera with which Cracknell will make her Metropolitan Opera debut at the end of the year.

We encounter Portia (Alison Oliver) on her 30th birthday, which is to say half a lifetime since her twin brother and soulmate, Gabriel, drowned in the Belmont River nearby. The spectral Gabriel is seen now and again in the half-lit presence of performer Archee Aitch Wylie, who sings the baleful, plaintive original compositions of Maimuna Memon. An Olivier nominee earlier this year for Standing at the Sky’s Edge, Memon has her own show opening this week at Southwark Playhouse across town.

Alex Eales’s set, shimmeringly lit by Guy Hoare, is centred around the living room of the home that Portia shares with her wealthy husband (2019 Olivier winner Chris Walley) and three unseen sons who, one worries, just might suffer the same fate meted out to Medea’s offspring.

Toward the right is the bar presided over by Fintan Goolan (Conor MacNeill) and populated by such local characters as the eyepatch-wearing Stacia Diyle (Sadhbh Malin), aka “the Cyclops of Coolinarney”, while the seductive banks of the Belmont rise up toward the rear. Those are where Portia is wooed by her lover Damus (Charlie Kelly) and to which she feels compelled to return, whatever the cost.

Portia’s own family communicate a bile that even Martin McDonagh at his most envenomed might envy. Her mother Marianne (Mairead McKinley) announces pretty much on cue that she wishes her daughter had never been born, while her grandmother, Blaize, spews vitriol with abandon, having some while ago decided that gentleness and she do not coexist. A wide-eyed Sorcha Cusack lets rip with that role, all the while exhibiting a gift for projection not shared by all her castmates.

The second act piles on revelations – inbreeding and incest among them – to a degree that might give even the Greeks pause. Through it all, Oliver makes her abject, indrawn way, springing to life when most enraged at the baleful lot circumstances have dealt her. (She married Raphael, we learn, because his name suggested an angel, which turned out to be perhaps not the best idea.)

Oliver’s commitment to the depressive drear of the character is impressive, though you do wonder what a more naturally energised performer like Denise Gough must have brought to the part in a separate Abbey Theatre revival of this play in Dublin early last year.

Traversing the stage as if she can hardly bear to inhabit her own body, Oliver transmits Portia’s crushing awareness, as expressed early on, that “half of me is left” following the death of her twin – “the worst half”.

What follows is a reckoning play where a community must confront its cumulative secrets and lies, those ghosts who stalk the action and others who don’t. Mating calls of varying kinds course through the unyielding, remorseless trajectory of the writing, but the only one that matters ultimately is the siren song of death.

Portia Coughlan is at the Almeida Theatre through 18 November.

Photo credit: Portia Coughlan (Photo by Marc Brenner)

Originally published on

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