The first thing you notice looking at the cast list for The Mai is the predominance of female characters. This happens so rarely in Irish theatre some may have to look twice and/or double check people aren’t using the name ‘Mary’ as unisex these days.
Galway-based Mephisto Theatre bring the work of Ireland’s leading female playwright, Marina Carr, to the Town Hall Theatre for a ten day run; the choice of play an excellent opportunity to showcase the talent, of which there is plenty, of western women.
The Mai weaves together the stories of four generations of women, and the tragedy of love in its many guises. The characters grapple with passion and parenting and the impossibility, it seems, of ‘having it all’. The play poses a challenge to the ideal of the patriarchal family and the sacred figure of the Irish mother, which in the context of 1990s Ireland where divorce was still illegal would have been politically subversive. The men in the play are weaker, absent, on the margins of family life and the women are seen to struggle with the role of motherhood. However Byron’s maxim of ‘man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart, tis woman’s whole existence’ rings true for some of the female characters, hence Carr offers no easy answer on how to be a woman, but includes all facets of their weak and wonderful characteristics; both romantic and resilient.
There are some fine actors here that deserve to be seen nationally. Margaret O’Sullivan’s portrayal of Grandma Fraolchan is simply brilliant. She absolutely inhabits the character; the seas of Connemara audible in her lilting tones, the rich life she has lived visible in her wrinkled face (kudos here to costume and make-up). She is, moreover, hilariously funny and has the audience in convulsions with her witty quips.
“You are born, you have sex and then you die,” says the lady who spent her birthday money “from the president” (for turning 100) on chocolate and cigarettes. She also has a penchant for opium and mulberry wine.
Caroline Lynch captures the elusive quality in the character of Mai that makes her special enough to be prefixed with ‘the’, while Helen Gregg and Siobhan Donnellan brilliantly support her in earthier roles. Frieda McGrath as Julie has a heart-wrenching scene where the fraught relationship with her mother is exposed, even at the age of seventy-five.
Marina Carr’s 1994 play, which was her first entry into the mainstream after earlier surrealist works, shows just how good she is in this more conventional form. The family dynamic between the women is wonderfully constructed. The passionate relationship between Robert and The Mai is devastating. When he doesn’t acknowledge how she looks before leaving for The Lions Ball you could almost hear the audience groan, as Carr hones in on life’s small tragedies.
“But it doesn’t matter, I’m proud…”says “ Grandma Fraolchan, “Three great women! Mighty women the lot of ye.”
Go and see them.
C. M. McHugh