Portia Coughlan: Bringing an unhappy housewife back, in the sad-girl era
The woman in Marina Carr’s play looks miserable. Can her unhappiness be better understood?
Abbey Theatre, Dublin
“You’re so fuckin’ bitter,” says Portia Coughlan, standing next to a secluded riverbank, with a man who isn’t her husband. “Not exactly a picture of bliss yourself,” he responds, as if happiness were a competition. In Marina Carr’s 1996 play, several people remark on how low-spirited the housewife seems. (“In a bitchy mood again?” someone asks). It is her 30th birthday after all.
What’s interesting about meeting Portia at this point in time - who is corrosive enough to strip paint in Denise Gough’s performance - is that languor has never been more mainstream; ask any Billie Eilish fan. In an era where philosophical pessimism isn’t just a tendency but a social media aesthetic (“sad girl summer”), there might be a readiness to sit with unhappiness longer, to better understand it.
Portia’s birthday is a rollercoaster. After barely acknowledging the €5k diamond bracelet her husband Raphael (Marty Rea) gifts her, she proceeds to gets drunk at a bar with her friend (Imogen Doel), has conspicuous rendezvouses with two different men, faces down her icy mother Marianne (Derbhle Crotty), and detonates her 12-year marriage in a ferocious outburst. She also occasionally senses the presence of her dead twin brother, who drowned in the local river. Portia isn’t just sad; she’s haunted.
Carr’s play has always been a supernatural drama doubling as a study in grief. Locals recall how Portia and her brother mimicked each other, with one relative even sneeringly describing them as “changelings”. Her depression is unshakable, and it isn’t long into the play before she joins her brother, sadly becoming another ripple of light on the late-night water of Jack Phelan’s video design.
Tragic as this sounds, it would be remiss to not point out that this is fundamentally a comedy of cruelty, with bold pushes towards vulgarity, and unpleasant sexual encounters that feel insightful. Nowhere else will you see a woman with one eye (Portia’s friend Stacia, nicely played by Imogen Doel) tell a man to stick his penis into her empty eye socket. Or will you encounter a horny man who likes things, ahem, fishy.
In a world of unhappy marriages, sex and infidelity become acts of revenge or, more starkly, just aimless distractions. “He was useless. As useless as you,” says Portia, brutally breaking the news of a meaningless dalliance to her husband. There is power in gulling men – that’s as true for Aeschylus as it is for Lena Dunham – and in exposing marriages and sexual encounters as personal disappointments.
Only after Portia’s death is it revealed that she was the latest in a succession of unhappy wives, with Marianne’s own marriage strained by a ferocious, racist mother-in-law named Blaize (Barbara Brennan), who considers her relatives as diluents to the family bloodline. Marianne and her children once lived with Blaize, in something like a prison, and though they escaped they still spent their lives feeling suffocated.
That seems a poignant explanation of the play’s tragic events: a family unable to form a support network. Grief demolishes all, and when the script eventually brings us back to Portia in the hours before her death, it becomes a checklist of missed connections, of mother and daughter swallowed into silence. The play’s final scene will insist that it is the destruction of Portia’s marriage that is most crushing, and if the conclusion feels low-impact, it’s because Marty Rea’s Raphael is more disappointed than devastated. He’s another person who’s bummed.
Runs until 16th March.
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In case you missed it, my reviews of Walking with Ghosts (“Walking with Ghosts: Gabriel Byrne looks at the strange boy in the mirror”) and Endgame (“Endgame review: Absurd family comedy set at the end of the world”) were published recently in the Irish Times.
I’m also on commission to write something about Brian Friel for that newspaper. Keep an eye out!