Interview: Mairead McKinley on Portia Coughlan, ‘I’ve long been a fan of Marina Carr’s work’

Photo: Marc Brenner

by Jim Keaveney

Opening for previews next week, Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan is a heart-wrenching modern Irish classic about destructive families and obsession.

The play, which premiered at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin in 1996 and won Carr the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, has been updated for Carrie Cracknell’s new production at the Almeida Theatre through the addition of original songs, written by Maimuna Memon who previously worked at the Almeida on Nine Lessons and Carols.

With the cast currently in rehearsals, we caught up with Mairead McKinley who plays Marianne Scully, Portia Coughlan’s mother. McKinley was most recently seen in The Dry House earlier this year at Marylebone Theatre opposite Kathy Kiera Clarke (Derry Girls) who she reunites with in Portia Coughlan – the Guardian hailed their ‘glorious’ performances in a glowing 4-star review. They are joined by a stellar cast that also includes Conversations with Friends star Alison Oliver, Sorcha Cusack, Conor MacNeill, Fergal McElherron, Mark O’Halloran and Olivier Award-winner Chris Walley.

In an impressive career, McKinley has performed at the National Theatre, Hampstead Theatre and Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and taken on coveted roles like Lady Macbeth and Electra – but this is her first time performing at the Almeida. We found out what it’s like to be performing in the theatre’s unique space, what it’s like to work with Marina Carr and the cast’s shared experiences.

Q&A with Mairead McKinley

What can you tell us about Portia Coughlan and your role in the play?

Portia Coughlan is an eponymous play written in 1996 about a 30-year-old woman who because of the trauma caused by the death of her twin brother, Gabriel, 15 years previous, struggles to feel love for her husband, children and herself. Set in a rural community in the Midlands of Ireland, it is steeped in Irish culture and the flat glutaral accents of the characters serve as a geographical marker of this identity. Portia is unable to forget the death of her brother and her inextricable relation to him. It is not only Portia who struggles with expressions of love, but also the other characters suffer from the remoteness of togetherness. My character, Marianne Scully, is Portia’s mother. A lost soul who tries in her own woefully inadequate way to help Portia progress forward with her life, to be in this world and move on from the loss of her twin, the other half of her soul.

In rehearsals with Kathy Kiera Clarke. Photo: Marc Brenner


What was it about the play that attracted you to this production?Well…I love dealing with heavy themes within a play like death, betrayal, obsessive relationships, drinking and delusion! Only kidding! Firstly, I have never worked at the Almeida and often thought how much I’d like to. I have witnessed some thrilling pieces of theatre in this space over the years, so I was excited when the chance of performing here came up. Also, Marina Carr is one of the most prolific, accomplished and original contemporary Irish playwrights. It has been my privilege to share the early weeks of rehearsals with her. A beautiful person inside and out.

The cast is full of Irish acting talents – how important has that been in bringing what is a modern Irish classic to the stage?

The cast is full of Irish acting talent, and I feel very fortunate to be sharing a room with all these gifted individuals. We also have Archee Aitch Wylie (they/he) who plays Gabriel and is originally from Gloucestershire. Archee has the most divine voice which is so emotive and powerful. Irish people are great at telling stories, it’s in our DNA. Both in and out of a rehearsal room, we are literally incapable of not talking. Well, I am anyway. When you are a child, it just seeps into your blood. We have an example of every event that has ever occurred, ever. Like, ‘Oh my god. I remember the time something similar happened to my sister’s boyfriend’s father’s friend’. As I said before, I’ve long been a fan of Marina Carr’s work and it is an honour to join this brilliant cast and highly skilled creative team. I know in my heart these are the people, at this moment in time, that will be able to tell and share this heartbreaking story with sensitivity, depth and truth.

In rehearsals with Alison Oliver

How has the rehearsal process been so far?

Thanks to our Creative and Production Team the rehearsal room is such a great pleasure to walk into every day. The smiles and craic we have make it so much easier to enter into the world of the play. Not everyone can accomplish that special safe place to rehearse in. With Carrie Cracknell (Director) at the helm, we have a sublime environment to work in. Carrie is a director whose work I have admired from afar. She brings a calm artistic sensibility and deep intelligence to what is quite a complex piece. There is so much underlying in the text, so much to excavate like digging into the bottom of the Belmont River, the waterway in the play which takes Gabriel on his 15th birthday. We were blessed to be given that freedom in the early weeks to explore, unearth and build our characters past and present. I have loved every moment of this rehearsal process. It’s a great feeling to be part of a collective, sharing the space and the experience.

What do you think audiences will take away from the play?

As an actor, anticipating what an audience takes away from a piece can sometimes be counterproductive. We have to tell the story as we feel it and hope the audience comes on that journey with us. I hope they will leave with the sounds of the hauntingly beautiful music composition, put very skilfully together by Maimuna Memon. This music once heard you will never forget. A very talented young woman. Also, I think something good has happened if you wake up the next morning after seeing Portia Coughlan and you are still thinking about it, and it hasn’t floated away. Finally, I want these characters to land in your heart and I want you to care about them afterwards.

Portia Coughlan is at the Almeida Theatre from 10 October to 18 November 2023.