Gabriel Coughlan is a reluctant sort of ghoul, really. Drowned at 15 in the Belmont River, his spirit wanders the village and can occasionally be heard singing by the riverbank – but that’s about as much haunting as he’s up for.
Rather it’s his sister who keeps his memory most alive – Portia, Gabriel’s twin, 30 today and still deep in mourning for her brother. She measures out her days in shots of brandy, ignoring husband and kids through a fug of cigarette smoke, trudging between broken family home and the riverbank where she knocks back more spirits and shags her way through the town. Her grief for Gabriel has a sexual edge from the start, and played out against a backdrop of family feuds, unspoken backstories and a mysterious river there’s an air of Greek tragedy about Portia Coughlan as two incestuous, ill-fated siblings wrangle with past and present.
That Portia is doomed to an unhappy end is unsurprising, then; but that her suicide comes halfway through the play (where do we possibly go from here?) is not, and it’s in the scenes following Portia’s death that Marina Carr’s script really comes to life. Unrelentingly misunderstood and unfulfilled, and with an afterlife encounter her best shot at seeing Gabriel again, Portia drowns herself. Until that point, we’re in uncomplicated, linear terrain – a handful of pacey scenes quickly establish Portia’s kitchen table, local bar, extended family, ill-fated riverbank; this is that rare thing of an Irish play with pace. Her suicide, coming when it does, shatters not only the lives of those around her but the narrative framework in which they operate, with the final third of the play taking place in a delicious ambiguity – Portia returns, and interwoven with scenes of mourning that continue the linear trajectory are moments that might be flashbacks to Portia’s final hours, hitherto unseen, or (such is the change in her character and appearance) alternative / imagined versions of what might have been – a ‘reformed’ Portia who puts her children to bed and cooks dinner for her husband, about as real as her brother’s ghost.
As Portia passes into the afterlife, we enter what Carr dubbed the play’s metaphorical bogginess, haunted by a series of twinned alternatives: Portia’s lovers: the wealthy businessman and the impoverished barkeeper; her birthday presents: a five grand diamond necklace and a piece of porcelain tat; the white wine on her dining table and the whisky on the riverbank. The characters that surround Portia are restricted in flight or fancy in some way – her limping husband, her one-eyed best-friend, her wheelchair bound grandmother – for each of whom vision, movement, hope, escape is curtailed; Portia Coughlan is a tragedy of determinism, not so much of the road not taken as the one cordoned off.
Rich with the dialect of the Irish Midlands – “long and slow and flat and every second word is a curse,” says Carr – the sense of a grieving, down-at-heel family trapped in small-town cycles weighs heavily. Bronagh Logan’s production however, while steeped in mossy riverbanks and general gloom, drowning in dry ice and smelling of green, never quite fulfills the richness of Carr’s script, not helped by some wandering accents and a blindsighting moment of choreography. Susan Stanley’s Portia captures the pseudo-Greek tragic heroine, and Anne Kent, Alan Devally and Christopher Dunne are particularly strong in supporting roles; but with the humour hit and miss and otherwise lacking in moments of life or levity, the production’s determined dourness from the outset is suffocating. “Can’t we all just knock a bit of pleasure out of each other for once?”