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Review: Portia Coughlan, Almeida Theatre - a play that got under my skin

Portia Coughlan

At the interval during Portia Coughlan at the Almeida, I turned to my friend and said, 'it's very Greek tragedy'. At that point, I hadn't seen the Almeida's behind-the-scenes video in which Alison Oliver, who plays Portia, says: "It's very Greek in terms of the extremities she goes through".

I'd been careful to avoid any information about the play so I could sit down and watch without preconceived ideas.

Which seems a good time to do a spoiler warning. There may be more detail than I would typically include in this. Click away now if that's not your bag.

When we first meet Portia, she's still in her night dress and already drinking. It's her birthday, but her mood isn't exactly celebratory. Her emotions are strained by the absence of her twin brother Gabriel, who died 15 years earlier.

She is dismissive, distant and harsh to her loving husband and neglectful of her three children. This isn't a person in a good place.

Pain and grief roll off her in waves, but there is a desire for something. Sometimes it's a desire to forget, perhaps to feel something else or escape. During the day, she seeks out sex with lovers as well as drink.

There is also a desire for something more destructive; she doesn't seem to care about being seen.

But equally, she feels acutely her family's silence around Gabriel. Her family are unsympathetic, and she takes their reprimands silently - most of the time.

Gabriel, we learn, was a talented singer, and she 'hears' him and is drawn to the river where he drowned.

The songs are beautifully performed by Archee Aitch Wylie, who appears in the gloom at the back of the stage. They add a bittersweet ache and yearning to the atmosphere of the play. They heighten the loss and pain.

Through arguments, confrontations and gossip within the community, we learn more about Portia, her family, Gabriel and the sibling's relationship. Carr's dialogue peels back the layers to reveal a complex mix of emotions driving Portia's behaviour.

Yes, there is grief, but there is much more to it than that. 

It's evident that her life since her brother's death has been a series of sticking plasters over wounds that are far too deep. Her milestone birthday is a weighty test.

Carr structures the play to give us a glimpse of a different Portia. A Portia that is on a better path, living in the now more comfortably.

But it is a cruel trick when we've already been shown the future. It is another tragic lens through which to watch Portia's story: She isn't learning to live with her brother's death. She's giving up.

In this brief, 'happier' time, we are given the final pieces of the jigsaw, which completes the picture of Portia's pain. And I could feel that pain in Alison Oliver's performance.

I loved this play. It had me close to tears several times, and I was hooked. It was like watching an accident happening in slow motion and being unable to look away.

This play got under my skin, so no surprise I'm giving Portia Coughlan ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Portia Coughlan, Almeida Theatre

Written by Marina Carr

Directed by Carrie Cracknell

Starring Alison Oliver

Running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes, including an interval.

Booking until 18 November; for more information and to book, visit the Almeida website.

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