Actress Kathy Kiera Clarke spoke to David Hennessy about the Almeida’s revival of Portia Coughlan which deals with themes such as grief and generational trauma, and about how she knew Derry Girls would make ‘Ireland laugh’ but that she didn’t expect it to be such a global hit.
Well known for playing Aunt Sarah in Channel 4’s smash hit comedy Derry Girls, Kathy Kiera Clarke is set to take to the London stage in a star-studded London revival of Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan.
One of three plays known as Carr’s Midlands trilogy, Portia Coughlan finds its title character on the occasion of her 30th birthday.
On the face of it, Portia has a good life that includes a wealthy husband and children.
But Portia has never got over the loss of her twin Gabriel who drowned at the age of 15.
This birthday brings it all back for Portia in far too vivid a way.
Unfulfilled as a wife and mother, Portia has never achieved her potential.
When she starts to hear the ghost of her long dead twin brother, things start to unravel.
Conversations with Friends star Alison Oliver stars as Portia while Sorcha Cusack, Young Offenders star Chris Walley are also among the cast directed by Carrie Cracknell.
Kathy plays Portia’s aunt Maggie May. Maggie May has a special bond with her niece but is still powerless about her fate.
Kathy told The Irish World: “Maggie May was a prostitute.
“Maggie May was a precocious teenager, very damaged and sexually active within a small community.
“So obviously, there are really cruel references to her as a hoor, all of these things.
“Maggie May is very much an outsider in the place but Portia and Maggie May have a very special bond.
“They’re quite similar, I feel.
“They’re very free spirits.
“Maggie May went off and lived a life in London and experienced some horrific things but was able at least to go free.
“Portia’s bridled and has been kept in this small place and never able to or allowed to realise her full potential.
“This is the main issue with Portia’s existence.
“Maggie May sees that really clearly but at this point, no one is really able to help Portia.
“Portia has such difficulty in her relationship with her children.
“She was in deep grief after the death of a twin at the age of 15.
“She was married within two years.
“She started having children so young. She has these three children who she cannot connect with, will not connect with.”
What has it been like to see Alison take on Portia’s troubled character? “She’s just a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful person and so to watch Alison.
“We did a run of act one yesterday and it was very moving because she is drenched in the atmosphere and she is Portia.
“She’s our Portia and when she’s in the room, we feel the atmosphere. She brings the whole thing with her and for us, it’s really moving.
“She’s just pulled it into her soul.
“I actually get quite emotional thinking about Alison as Portia because Maggie May has such a deep love for her niece and has to see her unravel.
“I think that Maggie May knows what the end of the story is.”
It was not so long ago that The Irish World saw Kathy onstage in Eugene O’Hare’s The Dry House. A story of family, grief and alcoholism, we wonder if it does not also have similarities with Portia’s story.
“Yeah, certainly a central theme of Portia is grief: Family, grief, generational trauma.
“I have a line in this play when I’m talking about Portia and I’m talking about the kind of the generational incestuous relationships within that deeply damaged family.
“And Stacia, Portia’s friend, asks Maggie May, ‘Does Portia know all this?’
“And I say, ‘No, but her blood do’.
“Marina writes something here that is Greek in its proportions, it’s epic but it comes down to a family. The centre of it all is family.
“There’s an undercurrent of cultural trauma, historical trauma: The stuff that we carry in our bones, in our souls, in our DNA.
“It’s ancient, it’s Greek, and it’s also very real.
“We just want to tell this story because it’s such an important story to tell.
“It feels so much bigger than a play about a family.
“This play brings with it a lot of epic themes.
“Sorcha Cusack said today the clue is in the title because it’s Portia, which is obviously the Merchant of Venice, and then it’s Coughlan which is such a rural Irish name.
“So Marina is putting these two absolute extreme worlds together.
“The Greek, the epic, and then the bog.
“It’s also about the constraints put upon women in Irish society, the expectations certainly, in this case, in rural Ireland.
“But I’m not so sure that it’s that much different in the non-rural Irish communities of even 1996.
“You know, it’s Catholic Ireland.
“These expectations and these restrictions upon women and the expectation to be a mother, to be a wife, to be a good mother to be the best you can be when people are perhaps not able for it, or battling mental health issues or trauma but will, I guess, see through what it is that is expected of them.
“Then the end result of that often is tragic.
“And we see it.
“Because I grew up in Belfast during the troubles, I can see the societal post traumatic stress disorder generation after generation and how that plays itself out with alcohol addiction, with depression, with all of these things.
“It’s so interesting.
“Mark O’ Halloran was saying how interesting it was that 1996 (the year the play was first staged) was the year of the divorce referendum in Ireland and also the year The Beauty Queen of Leenane was written.
“It seemed that there was this kind of surge of women centre stage
“I guess Marina’s Portia is of its time, just a direct response to everything that was going on in Ireland and it was a really important piece of work that we’re revisiting nearly 30 years later, and it’s as pertinent a time as any to do it.”
The Irish Independent said of the play back in 1996, ‘Portia Coughlan packs a hell of a punch. It hurts to look at it. But it has to be seen.’
“We’ve just had a breakfast meeting here with patrons of the theatre, just a bit of breakfast and there was a woman crying at the end of it.
“Fergal (McElherron), who plays Senchil my husband, and I spoke to her afterwards and said, ‘Did that trigger something in you?’
“And she said, ‘It was just something you said’.
“I actually just spoke of my character. Maggie May was a prostitute in Kings Cross in the 70s and she had a particularly rough customer one night who beat her up and stole her money and her shoes so that she couldn’t follow him.
“She’s lying in the doorway of a warehouse in Kings Cross and Senchil comes along. Essentially they find each other, they save each other really and then they move back home.
“And in the play, theirs is really the most functional, beautiful relationship because it came from such an act of humanity and kindness.
“So within the darkness and these things that Marina does not shy away from tackling, there’s also humour because that dark, dark Irish humour is always there no matter what. But there is also some tremendous acts of humanity and kindness. We are also that.
“She said it was just the act of kindness (that made her cry).
“In such a cruel world, the most simple act of kindness can be the most moving thing.
“And that’s true.”
Marina has been with you for some of the rehearsal process, hasn’t she? What has it been like to have her there in the room?
“I guess she doesn’t want to push anything in a particular direction.
“We’d ask her questions and she would say, ‘I don’t know, I wrote it so long ago, I can’t remember’.
“Or something would happen and she’d say, ‘Oh, I actually I didn’t write that but that’s great’.
“And then sometimes she will just drop a grenade in the room.
“Say, ‘Actually, I think that you all are looking for the milk of human kindness in these people that are maybe just not very nice’.
“So it’s been great to have her there because she’s wonderful.
“She’s a very important writer.”
I want to bring up Derry Girls but I should think you’re used to it. People love it, don’t they?
“And there we are again, the central theme’s family.
“I know that Lisa has written Derry Girls with the troubles very much a backdrop.
“What’s happening outside on that island is always another character.
“And Derry Girls? Well: Joy, Joy, Joy. Loved it. Loved it. Loved the job. Loved getting those scripts, reading those.
“Yeah, there’s just nothing bad to say about it.”
Do you remember a moment when you realised you had something very special on your hands with Derry Girls?
“I remember when I read the first script. It totally blew my mind because it was so funny.
“But I don’t think anybody thought that it would be a global hit. I knew that it was really good. I knew that Lisa’s script was brilliant.
“I didn’t know what it was going to be.
“But I think it was one day near the end of filming of season one.
“Tommy Tiernan said to me, ‘This is definitely going to go for a second series, you know?’
“I said, ‘Do you reckon?’
“And he said, ‘Yeah, I think this is really special’.
“And then the first episode went out and I went for dinner and put my phone on silent because I was so nervous.
“I couldn’t cope. I was like, ‘I can’t even look at my phone’.
“And then after I’d had dinner, I turned my phone on and it had been buzzing off the hook.
“And everybody was just like, ‘Oh, my God, this is the funniest thing I have ever seen’.
“And then it was very surprising to me that it had such a wide reaching..
“I thought it would make Ireland laugh. I didn’t think that it would be such a global success.
“But again the central thing is family.
“It’s things that everyone understands no matter what corner of the world you come from.
“I think that’s why great writing touches and sustains, you know?”
You grew up in Belfast during the troubles. Even that there is a show called Derry Girls on prime time UK television shows how far we have come, doesn’t it?
“Absolutely. Because I do remember saying when Derry Girls was first mentioned, I remember saying to Lisa, ‘What is the demographic here on Channel Four because with the title alone, we’re surely taking out half of the population with both those words, ‘Derry’ and ‘Girls’.’
“It’s a testament to the journey that the people of the north have come on and the work that has been done in that place and it’s by no means finished, but I think that it’s heartening to see that we’ve come to a point that Channel Four would make Derry Girls for a start and that the entire community would embrace it and be proud of it.”
That was the most important thing of all, wasn’t it? That Derry, the city itself, embraced it?
“Absolutely, and with so much love.
“I think that’s the thing about our show.
“That’s the thing about it that is really special and really touching.
“There’s so much love that it moves me and it’s really important because I lived in London in the 90s, when there was some still some very deep anti-Irish sentiment.
“It’s very moving. I find it very emotional that we’re understood as a society a bit more and rather than the aggression that it used to be- It was Ian Paisley on the news, and it was anger, anger, anger, anger, and that’s how we were seen.
“I think that shows like Derry Girls, particularly that Good Friday Agreement episode that Lisa wrote, that was an education for so many people and such an important education.
“The amount of people that have said that to me, ‘We just didn’t know, we didn’t understand’.
“And Lisa did that without ramming it down anybody’s throat.
“She did it with genius humour and moments of pathos and such pathos that it’s absolutely heartbreaking.
“That’s why she’s such a brilliant writer, because she’ll have you laughing your head off one minute and then the next minute, she just pulls the carpet from under you and just bombs a little home truth in there.”
That’s the way with great comedies, isn’t it? If they get you with the laughs, they get you with serious moments too..
“That’s it. You have to earn something like that bomb at the end of season one.
“You really, really have to earn that and earn that Good Friday Agreement vote which I found so incredibly moving.
“I mean just that couple of seconds of Liam Neeson’s face when he’s casting that vote: He just brings all the history of that place to that one moment.
“So you’ve got great actors, and you’ve got great writing and it was received as I think it should have been.
“Sadly, we have such a history of violence and war.
“And these things are, as Maggie May says, you may not actually know these things, but your ‘blood do’.”
Portia Coughlan is at the Almeida Theatre until 18 November.
For more information and to book, click here.