Marina Carr's new play was delivered in a Dublin maternity ward. Georgina Brown talks to the author about her heroine's mixed parentage - part Beckett, part Bog of Allen

Chronologically confused, determinedly non-narrative, written in dialect, Marina Carr's latest play does not sound like everyone's idea of a grand night out, but it has proved precisely that in Dublin. "Breathtaking", "stunning", wrote the critics, exhilarated by its audacity and intensity. Following its Londo run at the Royal Court, Garry Hynes's production of Portia Coughlan will return to the Abbey Theatre for an extended season.

There are many to thank for this remarkable play, first the great and good who decided that the centenary of Dublin's National Maternity Hospital should be celebrated with an extensive arts programme, second the 80-odd women (among them Fiona Shaw, Maeve Binchy, Brenda Fricker and Garry Hynes) who stumped up pounds 50 to commission Marina Carr to write a play.

Every day she walked past wards of mothers and babies to get to the room the hospital provided for her to write in peace. "You pick things up from an atmosphere and sure it made a difference - though you never know where writing comes from," says Carr. She had a year to write the play but completed the first draft "in a white heat" in five weeks. "In the olden days they used to think of writing as more like witchcraft and there's something in that."

The landscape of the play is literally and metaphorically boggy and unstable, with water, water everywhere. The setting is the Irish Midlands where Carr grew up, "a very beautiful place, full of lakes and rivers and mountains and surrounded by the Bog of Allen". The words themselves seem waterlogged, the dialect long on vowels and short on consonants, and further slurred and blurred by drunkenness and grief. It's a heightened, poetic and theatrical language, "based on the way English is spoken in the Midlands - though if I wrote it like it really is, nobody would understand it. It's long and slow and flat and every second word is a curse," says Carr, whose mother, a schoolteacher, sent her brood of six to elocution lessons "to get the bog out of them". The Carrs were "blow ins", outsiders, and Carr suspects that this accounts for her objective perspective on the place. The family kept a sweet-shop and neighbours were treated to their homegrown theatricals, written, directed and performed by the Carr children in their garage. Only then were they allowed to buy their sweets.

This, her sixth play, concerns clever, crazy, self-destructive Portia, 30 years old today and inextricably bound to her twin brother, Gabriel, who drowned himself 15 years before on their 15th birthday. She is drawn irresistibly to the river Belmont where he died. Her twin, the murky depths of the river, the past, all conspire to claim her. And they do. In the second act we see Portia dead. But the third act returns to the (in)action on that nightmarish 30th birthday, our response altered by our knowledge of what will happen. Or thinking we know. The director, Garry Hynes, refuses to commit herself: "I can't say it is or it isn't. The audience sees her dead and draws its own conclusions and the fact that you mourn the death of a character in the middle has to make a difference."

Not that the story is anything so crude as being a journey to death. "I had the womb all to myself," laughs Carr. "But everyone is aware of possibilities crushed or lost - and the side that is cut off is often the most beautiful side."

Her first serious play, Ulalloo (an old Irish word meaning death-song), was written in her final year at university in Dublin and was influenced by her immersion in Beckett. It was immediately accepted by the Peacock Theatre, which has kept a sharp eye on Carr's work.

Portia Coughlan is a departure. The action is stretched over four generations of a family, as a destiny set in motion in the distant past determinedly works its way into the present, and new literary influences seem evident. The tragedy is Greek; the names Portia and Belmont bring the resonance of Shakespeare; the mood is Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill - despite some humour, it is exceptionally bleak. "I'm not so bleak myself," says Carr. "I'd not be alive if I was." Today she's high as a kite, having just seen the production of Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Abbey. "I was blown away. I hadn't registered the real craft before. Nothing sluggish or sequential, yet it obviously obeys the rules of sequence." You could say the same about Portia Coughlan, where the sequence is an emotional line, pulled taut to breaking point with dazzling skill.

n 'Portia Coughlan' opens tomorrow at the Royal Court, London SWI, and runs to 1 June. Booking: 0171-730 1745

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test