Portia Coughlan: a Q&A with Susan Cummins
Shelley Marsden speaks to actor Susan Cummins, who plays the protagonist’s mother in a London revival of Marina Carr’s powerful Irish play.
Irish playwright Marina Carr’s ferocious and haunting tale Portia Coughlan is coming to Islington’s Old Red Lion this May, and it’s going to be a must-see for lovers of compelling theatre.
Portia lives in a monstrous limbo, haunted by a yearning for her twin brother, who drowned in the Belmont River, and unable to find any love for her wealthy husband and children, seeking solace in soulless affairs, deeply afraid of what she might do.
Written to celebrate the centenary of Dublin’s National Maternity Hospital, Portia Coughlan packs quite a punch. It’s not always easy to watch, but it has got to be seen. Last performed at The Royal Court Theatre in 1996, this exciting new revival is directed by Bronagh Lagan – Rags-in concert (West End), Girlfriends (Union Theatre), Henry VI Part 1 (Rose Theatre). Portia Coughlan is part of a double-bill at the Old Red Lion with the world premiere of new musical The Verb, ‘To Love’.
Describe Portia Coughlan in a sentence, please!
It’s about families not dealing with a variety of issues and, in particular, grief.
Is Carr’s tale a reminder that everyone can have their demons?
Yes, because in many ways Portia seems to have it all, the ideal existence, yet she isn’t happy. The grass isn’t always greener, you know?
Which elements of the play spoke to you most?
It was the sheer quality of the writing that really got under my skin, from the get-go: “From here-on-in it’s only bitterness and gums.” Blaize Scully is such a character, as is Maggie May Doorley when she says things like, “Senchil wasn’t born – he was knitted on a wet Sunday afternoon.” The writing just lifts off the page. It is so incredibly vivid you can’t help but become immersed in the story.
The dialect and theatrical style of dialogue reflect the waterlogged Irish Midlands where Carr grew up, and has a sluggish quality which reflects her character’s twin’s watery death years previously – how hard is it to enter into that haunted world of hers?
You know, it wasn’t hard at all actually, because her words are just so lyrical and have such a natural flow to them. The play may be considered ‘dark’ but I feel the style and dialect lend themselves incredibly well to the piece.
Where does your character, Marianne fit into this haunting tale?
Marianne is Portia’s mother, who doesn’t really listen to what her daughter has to say, and dishes out a lot of ‘tough love’, let’s say. She hasn’t had a particularly good life herself, with her mother-in-law treating her shoddily and her husband not standing up for her in the slightest. She is also grieving for her son, but in general isn’t very good at showing her emotions. She’s quite a complicated person, but aren’t we all when it comes down to it?!
The stifling village of Belmont which Portia lives in is a character in itself with its cast of larger-than-life characters. Who’s your favourite?
The Belmont Valley definitely has a life of its own, which could only produce larger than life characters. One of my favourites is unsurprisingly Portia herself, as she often seems to be the character who is the most honest and truthful.
She’s one of Ireland’s foremost playwrights, but Carr has attracted criticism for her portrayal of ‘damaged’ women…
Marina Carr is most definitely one of our leading playwrights – she just tells great stories about real things that happen to people. I don’t think the women are any more damaged than some of the men. She writes truly great parts for women, full stop.
What other projects are you involved in?
I am in pre-production for a short film being shot in August called Jack Mulligan. It’s a ClanLondon/Andy Nolan production and it’s a gritty London Irish crime drama, being directed by the award-winning Tom Begley. As one of the co-founders of INDA UK (Irish Network of Dramatic Arts) we have commissioned an Irish playwright to write a piece for the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. So, exciting times ahead!
Portia Coughlan runs at The Old Red Lion, 418 St John Street, London EC1V 4NJ, London EC1V 4NJ from Tuesday 28th April to Saturday 23rd May 2015 8.45pm. Tickets £16/14 available from www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk or 0844 412 4307.