The Mai

Caroline Lynch and Liam O'Brien in 'The Mai' by Marina Carr. Photo: Martin Maguire

Caroline Lynch and Liam O'Brien in 'The Mai' by Marina Carr. Photo: Martin Maguire

Caroline Lynch in 'The Mai' by Marina Carr presented by Mephisto Theatre Co. Photo: Martin Maguire

Caroline Lynch in 'The Mai' by Marina Carr presented by Mephisto Theatre Co. Photo: Martin Maguire

Photo: Martin MaguireThe work of a talented playwright such as Marina Carr is always eagerly anticipated, whether it is a new play or a revival. Unfortunately, Mephisto Theatre Company’s production of The Mai disappoints. While there is much about this interpretation that is magical, it is Carr’s writing and some outstanding performances that save the production, which falters on its casting, stage set and direction.

Carr’s genius excavation of four generations of Irish women and their absolute compulsion to repeat the same tunes with a completely different orchestration is flattened by the casting of the two young lead roles; Caroline Lynch and Liam O’Brien as the Mai and Robert are unconvincing as the tortured lovers. The Mai is a strong woman; a school principal, artistic, independent and outwardly tough. Her Achilles’ heel is love for a man – though not worthy of it, he must appear in some moments on stage as though he were; we have to be able to see what she sees in him. O’Brien does not show us this. We do not see in him the caged animal that other actors have brought to the role nor the lacerating ego behind the mild façade.

Caroline Lynch’s Mai achieves little of the irony and contradictions of the woman. We never see the Mai as the tower of driven strength who raises four children, works full time and builds a beautiful monument of a house for her lover to come back to when he’s womanised out and can no longer find inspiration for his music. The Mai’s passion is hidden, her vulnerability overplayed, and we lose interest in her plight. Though we know that the Mai has been a neglectful mother on an emotional level and ultimately weak, Lynch never gives us the rawness of that kind of character nor indeed its nastiness. She fails also to show us the Grandma Fraochlan within her, though we are sure this is Carr’s plan.

Róisín Stack’s direction has to take some of the responsibility. The pace and fluidity of the play is hampered by a mild lack of consideration, and weaker performances in the cast are sacrificed for exceptional performances from the others. Such a forceful and yet subtle playwright requires much attention to the nuance and contradictions of her characters, and Stack has left Lynch and O’Brien too much to their own devices.

Photo: Martin MaguireOn the other hand, Margaret O’Sullivan’s portrayal of Grandma Fraochlan is devastatingly superb and there is no doubt about who we are dealing with here – the devious bitch, the lovable rogue, the breaker of rules, the controller of her flock, their shepherd and their wolf; the devil is in her. Freda McGrath gives a poise perfect performance as the hardhearted victim Julie who has a heart after all. Helen Gregg as the dumb Beck, who has the wisdom to know herself, is fantastic; she brings to her role both in delivery and expression that world weary acceptance of her limitations and the honesty to reveal her own lies to herself and the family. And happy go lucky Connie is captured beautifully by Siobhan Donnellan as the envy of tortured souls who would love to trade places with her for just a little while.

While the set design sets the play firmly but gently in the gaudy 70’s, bar a huge window to a beautiful landscape, it fails to reflect the tastes of an eclectic and artistic woman. The furniture is bland middle-class. Mike O’Halloran’s lighting is effective and dramatic.

Photo: Jane TalbotThere are some beautiful moments in Mephisto’s production, as when Robert sensually plays The Mai’s body as his cello. Grace Kiely, as the Mai’s daughter Millie, is haunting as the narrator and sometimes player in the narrative of tragedy. And Margaret O’Sullivan as Grandma Fraochlan never loses a moment to hurt and entertain in her interactions with her daughters and granddaughters.

Carr’s play is a masterpiece. Its themes go back beyond the beginning of Greek tragedy and all the ensuing reinterpretations of the ‘curse of fate’ in Chekhov, Beckett, Synge, Tennessee Williams, Friel, McDonagh et al, and it is so brilliant that it will be presented again for generations to come. Carr captures fantastically in The Mai that there is little difference between men and women – and a world of difference, and that old age is no cure for badness: if you’re a tough hardhearted, selfish, devious, conniving old bitch, the generations that follow you will lap it up unknowingly in their bones.

Mephisto is a young company and it produces challenging work. This challenge was a stretch. It’s a rather large cast with a huge subtext, and sometimes it is only with luck and experience that the ultimate is achieved. Despite some uneven performances, Mephisto did a good job and the production’s moments of brilliance are unforgettable.

Breda Shannon

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Mai by Marina Carr

16 - 25 August, 2012

Produced by Mephisto
In Town Hall Theatre

Directed by Róisín Stack

Lighting Design: Mike O’Halloran

Set: Mike O’Halloran, Róisín Stack and Emma O’Grady

Music Director and Composition: Béibhinn O’Connor

With: Caroline Lynch, Liam O’Brien, Grace Kiely, Margaret O’Sullivan, Helen Gregg, Siobhan Donnellan, Frieda McGrath and Mary McHugh