- Portia Coughlan, and: The Steward of Christendom
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Maternity hospitals are rarely linked with theatrical productions. At least a footnote in theatre history belongs to Dublin’s National Maternity Hospital for commissioning its writer-in-residence, Marina Carr, to create a play. The result, Portia Coughlan, was initially performed by the Abbey Theatre, where its director Garry Hynes was Artistic Director in the early 1990s. Like The Mai, Carr’s only other published play, Portia Coughlan debuted with Derbhle Crotty, who here gives a compelling performance in the title role.
Bassanio spoke of Shakespeare’s Portia saying “in Belmont is a lady richly left” (1.1.122). Carr offers another Belmont, this one a rural valley in the Irish midlands, and another Portia, but one whose legacy is rich only in horror. Like her namesake, Carr’s Portia, the daughter of a landowning farmer and wife of a prosperous husband, isn’t burdened by penury. Despite marriage and three children, Portia Coughlan is also admired by many men: her patient, crippled husband; her lover of fifteen years; and the barman at the local pub. On her thirtieth birthday Portia Coughlan is not merely “aweary of this great world” (1.2.2), but chronically disaffected. And whereas Shakespeare’s Portia awakens from her weariness and melancholy, Carr’s plumbs their depths. Portia Coughlan is among the least sympathetic characters ever to appear on stage. An alcoholic, dangerous to her children, she engages in a full spectrum of destructive and self-destructive behavior.
Carr clearly isolates the landscape Portia inhabits from the rest of Ireland and the rest of the world. The use of phonetic spellings in the published play text and thick, challenging accents on stage weds Portia to a specific place beyond which she cannot see. Having married Raphael rather than go off to university, she has never left the valley. Blinkered by her narrow experience and abiding grief over the suicide of her twin brother Gabriel, Portia takes refuge at the Belmont riverside, land she fiercely claims as her family’s own and the scene of Gabriel’s suicide fifteen years ago. The suffocating intimacy of these characters is reinforced not only by language, claustrophobic spaces, and Portia’s inextricable association with her native soil, but by incest.
Midway through the first act the play finds its structural principle: by turns, characters say the cruelest, most vicious things they have ever felt to one another. A series of stunning revelations lays bare these secrets: that Portia fears she might mutilate or drown her own sons; that Portia planned to commit suicide with her twin; that their parents have a common father; that Portia’s mother never loved her; that her father sees her as a “darche fuchen cunt” (Portia Coughlan [London: Faber & Faber, Inc., 1996], 60); that Portia and Gabriel were involved in incest for a decade. The ensemble cast’s great strength lay in alternating between these terrifying admissions and moments of genuine humor. Portia’s grandmother Blaize, given some of the most incendiary screeds, claims that Gabriel was “insane from too much inbreedin’” (54) and [End Page 233] that Portia has not escaped that fate. For Blaize (and quite possibly for Carr) “tha histories a’ yeer blood” (23) are telling.
In a chilling a cappella airs, Gabriel haunts almost every scene in Hynes’s production. Looming above the stage in ghostly light, Gabriel beckons Portia to the past and to the future. Unable to live in the present, Portia suffers from anhedonia. Sex, which she pursues with some frequency, is only a disappointment; love for Raphael or their children is not a possibility.
The second and third acts offer mutually exclusive possibilities for what may become of Portia. Immediately after the interval the audience is confronted with the striking tableau of Portia...