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Portia Coughlan

Studio Theatre, 2001

Cast & Crew


Director's Note

Press Release: November 12, 2001

Press Release - November 12, 2001

The Graduate Centre for Study of Drama
Portia Coughlan
Written by Marina Carr

The Graduate Centre for Study of Drama presents the Canadian premiere of Irish playwright Marina Carr's award winning drama Portia Coughlan.

Portia Coughlan lives in a nether-world between this life and the next. Haunted by the singing ghost of her twin brother, whose death in the Belmont river at the age of fifteen has rendered her life incomplete, Portia no longer feels able to nurture the husband and children who rely on her.  Both shockingly dark and surprisingly humorous, Portia Coughlan tests the boundaries between the corporeal and the spiritual, the real and the mythical.

Marina Carr is one of the most talented of Ireland’s new generation of playwrights. Her rich lyrical dialogue mixes powerful imagery with sudden bursts of black humour and draws on a wide range of sources from Greek tragedy to Shakespeare to Irish folklore. Her characters speak with a directness and honesty that is not easily comparable to recent works seen on Toronto stages. Carr was writer in residence at the Abbey Theatre in 1995, and at Trinity College Dublin in 1999. Portia Coughlan is the winner of the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, for outstanding work written by a woman for the English-speaking theatre.

Directed by Natalie Harrower, Portia Coughlan features Lesley Dowey in the title role, and a strong supporting cast of Louis Adams, Razie Brownstone, Rebecca Burton, Andrew Gillis, Wayne Gwillim, Peter Higginson, Ann Holloway, Christopher Morris, Paula Sperdakos, and Toby Steel.

Portia Coughlan
November 28 -December 9, 2001
Please Note: no performance Saturday December 8.
Wednesday - Saturday 8pm - $12/$10 stu/sen, Sunday 2pm PWYC
Studio Theatre
4 Glen Morris Street

Review: Now Magazine: December 6, 2001
Read the review below or view it on the original website here

Twin peaks

A woman obsessed with her drowned brother despairs in poetic Portia Coughlan


PORTIA COUGHLAN, THE SAD, ANGRY title character in Marina Carr's play, is obsessed with her twin brother Gabriel, who drowned years before in the local river. Portia won't let those around her forget the loss either, and in Carr's intriguing, lyrical script the audience is also haunted by the living and the dead. Carr plays with the idea of twinned, shared souls, physically and emotionally damaged people and the importance of names -- Portia is married to Raphael Coughlan, for instance, and angelic echoes filter through the piece. Some of Carr's strongest writing goes to Portia, in powerful speeches that voice but don't resolve her bitterness and despair. Reversing the chronological order of scenes in the second half, the playwright focuses on character rather than plot, giving a striking emphasis to these Irish figures.

Under director Natalie Harrower, this Canadian premiere has much to admire, notably Lesley Dowey's Portia, a passionate woman with a poetic soul. Christopher Morris's Raphael is a pitiable man who tries fruitlessly to kindle love at home, while Louis Adams brings a believable sadness to Portia's sometime lover.

As Portia's aunt, Ann Holloway begins as a robust cartoon, but turns into an earthy, sympathetic figure -- one of Portia's few allies. Too bad Harrower doesn't get work that good from the rest of Portia's secretive relatives. The writing for her mother, father and grandmother are the nastiest, funniest parts of the play, but the actors don't communicate the poison festering in this family.

NOW Magazine Online Edition, VOL. 21 NO. 14

Copyright © 2001 NOW Communications Inc.
story link: Now Magazine, VOL 21 NO 14: Dec 6-13, 2001

Review: Stage Door: December, 2001
Read the review below or view it on the original website here (scroll down)

Portia Coughlan
by Marina Carr, directed by Natalie Harrower
University of Toronto Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama, Glen Morris Studio Theatre, Toronto
November 28-December 9, 2001

by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Haunting Irish Mystery"

"Portia Coughlan" is the first full production of a play by Irish playwright Marina Carr ever presented in Canada. Carr was the first woman to become writer-in-residence at Britain's National Theatre and her works have won acclaim in Ireland, Britain, Europe and the United States. Given this and that Modern Irish drama is so popular in this country, it is surprising that Canada has so far ignored her work. Hats off then to Natalie Harrower at the University of Toronto Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama for remedying this situation. On the evidence of her production of "Portia Coughlan," Carr is a fascinating playwright interested in the mingling of myth and history in contemporary life.

Superficially Portia would seem to be well-off housewife, all material needs met by her loving husband Raphael in a marriage that has produced three children. But as we meet her on her thirtieth birthday, she shows the hallmarks of clinical depression. She drinks too much, she feels no love for her husband, children or parents, and she flirts with both her former boyfriend and a local bartender but pushes them away when they want sex--she hates her life and what she has become. Gradually we come to know the cause. Portia is completely obsessed with the death of her twin brother Gabriel fifteen years ago and constantly visits the spot by the river Belmont where he drowned.

Except for the frequent appearances of Gabriel singing the same beautiful song about marriage, the play's procedure is primarily naturalistic in the manner of Tennessee Williams as successive conversations fill in more and more of Portia's background to explain her dangerously volatile state of mind. What is unusual is how extensive the background is that Carr gives us. Portia's longing for death is not merely due to her unnatural closeness with her twin, but to the rift between her parents, the tyranny of her father's mother, to her mother's Gypsy background and to a secret in her grandmother's parents' past. Portia justifiably asks the age-old question whether what we do is determined or just the product of "flitting from chance to chance." When Portia speaks of nature her language leaves behind its rough vulgarity and becomes poetic.

What initially seemed to be a psychological problem gradually takes on philosophical and mythic resonance. As twins Portia and Gabriel would often not know who was who. Escape together to a "place that is not here" was always their goal from childhood on. With Gabriel died everything that was good in Portia, or as she says, "Perhaps God gave us just one soul between us, and Gabriel has it." As it turns out, the apparition we have seen of Gabriel is not just a figment of Portia's imagination as we first think but has been seen and heard by others. Genders reversed, is his a siren song of death? Are they changelings as Portia supposes? Will he, like the river god Bel who gave Belmont its name, sweep her like the witch of myth along with him to the river Shannon and into the sea? Layer by layer Carr peels off any contemporary explanations of Portia's malaise to find an inescapable destiny greater than everyday realism can explain.

Harrower ably brings out all these nuances. It would be better if one scene could flow more seamlessly into the next to bring out the nightmarish aspects of the play. A greater sense of tension would have reinforced the increasingly eerie aspect the play assumes. Tanit Mendes's non-naturalistic set cleverly portrays both of Portia's worlds at once, shading from the beiges of the interior settings to the greens by the fatal spot on the Belmont. Natalie Alvarez's costumes are appropriate to each character, especially humorous for Portia's low-class, kind-hearted aunt and her milquetoast husband. Alexandra Prichard works wonders with the limited lighting board at the Glen Morris Theatre.

As might be expected from a director who so clearly understands the text, Harrower draws fine performances from a cast that includes both Equity member and students. Among the Equity members, Lesley Dowey is excellent at making Portia sullen and mercurial, but a greater intensity underlying her world-weariness would make clearer what danger Portia is in. Christopher Morris (Portia's husband Raphael) creates a very sympathetic portrait of a man trying to comprehend the mental state that has drawn Portia away from him. Ann Holloway (Portia's aunt Maggie) is hilarious, giving us a vivid picture of this reformed prostitute and Portia's most trusted confidant. Only Paula Sperdakos (Portia's mother) seems unable to muster sufficient intensity for the frequent rows with Portia and her mother-in-law.

Of the non-Equity members, Louis Adams (Damus Halion) gives a very fine performance as Portia's first boyfriend who's continued love for competes with his incomprehension at her odd behaviour. Razie Brownstone (Portia's grandmother) makes this 80-year-old wheelchair-bound woman a force to reckon with. We laugh at the outrageousness of her remarks but come to see the real malevolence they carry. Toby Steel (Portia's uncle Senchil) is very funny in his own quiet way as a husband who seems content to be henpecked. Rebecca Burton (Portia's friend Stacia) gives us a glimpse of the normal human life Portia could enjoy. Music student Wayne Gwillim lends his beautiful tenor voice to Portia's brother Gabriel bringing out just the right sense of otherworldliness and melancholy in his song. Peter Higginson (Portia's father Sly) and Andrew Gillis (the local bartender Fintan) are adequate but have not quite mastered the Irish dialect.

Irish playwrights from Synge and Yeats on have explored the myths that express themselves in everyday life. Marina Carr adds a new variation to that exploration by a kind of excavation of the everyday to discover the mystery beneath. "Portia Coughlan" is both funny and disturbing. Harrower has taken the first step in making this play and this playwright known to us. Let's hope others follow her lead.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile