Portia Coughlan premiered at the Abbey Theatre in March 1996. Directed by Garry Hynes, this haunting tale by Marina Carr had a ‘who’s who’ of a cast, the main role being played by Derbhle Crotty.
Her husband, Raphael, was played by Sean Rocks, and most readers will know him as the weeknight presenter of Arena on RTÉ Radio 1, the station’s flagship arts programme which airs after Drivetime. Tom Hickey, Des Keogh, Don Wycherley and Bronagh Gallagher were also among the original cast list.
Next month, and running for four weeks, the Abbey Theatre will present the play again, and this time Derbhle Crotty will play the role of Marianne Scully, while Denise Gough will take the central role. This highly acclaimed, Ennis-born actress is a mainstay of the theatre and television world in Britain, and it is wonderful to see her back treading the boards in Dublin.
At the National Theatre in London in 2015 she gave what reviewers described as an “electrifying” performance as a recovering substance user in People, Places and Things, and she reprised the role when the production transferred to the Wyndham’s Theatre in early 2016, for which she won a Laurence Olivier Award for best actress.
She returned to the National Theatre in 2017 playing the role of Harper in a revival of Angels in America, for which she won the 2018 Laurence Olivier Award for best actress in a supporting role.
With the sell-out production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer coming to an end this month at the Abbey Theatre, the clear message is to book early for Portia Coughlan. It too is set to sell-out, given the enormous appetite for live theatre again and the few opportunities to enjoy it.
Portia Coughlan is the story of the 30-year-old twin sister of Gabriel who drowned in the Belmont River at the age of 15. He is a reluctant sort of ghoul, whose spirit wanders about the village and can occasionally be heard singing at the riverbank.
Fifteen years after his passing, and still mourning the loss of her brother, Portia is a mess.
She ignores her husband whom she cannot love, she doesn’t trust herself to care for her three children, she smokes, drinks and is unfaithful. The play is a tragedy, and Portia’s tragic death half way through would lead you to wonder where the story could go?
However, as good as the first part of the play is, it is Carr’s writing in the second half that lifts the play from being good to a place of excellence. It is a play that will stay with you forever, a story rich in the dialect of the midlands, one that was once described by Carr as “long and slow and flat and every second word is a curse”.
With restrictions still in place in the world of the arts, an opportunity to see such a gem as Portia Coughlan should not be missed.