Theatre review: The Mai at the Dublin Theatre Festival
Written by Marina Carr
Director: Andrew Flynn
Cast: Leslie Conroy, Derbhle Crotty, Maeve FitzGerald, Stella McCusker, Rachel O’Byrne, Marion O’Dwyer, Aidan Redmond, Joan Sheehy
Despite revivals and reworkings of plays like Katie Roche and The Unmanageable Sisters, the experience of women in Ireland has been much the same on the theatrical stage as it has been in real life - silent but simmering in the background. It fairly exploded when Marina Carr's The Mai was first performed at the Abbey in Dublin in 1994 and it seems that the time is right to make some long-suffering voices heard again. The new Decadent Theatre Company production for the 2018 Dublin Theatre Festival puts all those passions across in an extraordinary play that slips between warm reflection, wistful melancholy and explosive brutality.
It would be difficult to sum up the experience of Irish women across four generations, but The Mai covers about 100 years of it in just such terms. It's in equal parts loving, affectionate, warm and nostalgic, and at the same time direct, realistic, brutal and destructive, but hopefully destructive in a positive rebuilding way. It's an ambitious endeavour, all the more so for how Carr relates these sentiments to traditional family values and addresses social attitudes across the ages, but also incorporates dreams and myths to better and more comprehensively capture something of the lives of women, generational change, generational conflict and indeed the inheritance of old grievances and regrets.
Tying it into cycles of nature and life, there is a repeated motif that rises to the surface; acceptance. It's a theme that becomes all the more shocking for it being a constant in the lives of all these women. The Mai has consequently been patiently waiting five years for her errant composer and musician husband Robert to return. She has in the meantime built a new house for herself and her children on Owl Lake, but when Robert returns, she warmly welcomes him back, brushing aside all the concerns and hardships she has endured in his absence.
The Mai might remain silent, but there are others who voice their opinions, notably the Mai's 100 year old grandma Fraochlan, who has been a martyr to the memory of her long departed husband 'The Nine-Fingered Fisherman', who has achieved mythical status in her mind. The Mai's aunts, part of the Connemara clique, also have plenty to say - not so much about their own lives as in expression of their disapproval of everyone else's, particularly those that don't meet the high standards and the often hypocritical stance that is instilled in the community by the Church. The Mai's daughter Millie, 16 at the time of Robert's return, also acts as a contemporary narrator looking back on those events from 15 years in the future, a mother now with her own child.
There's one noticeable female figure missing in that generational span, and that's The Mai's own mother Ellen, who died in childbirth. Often referred to warmly and affectionately, a figure who it seems might have been able to change everything, whose absence now leaves a large hole in the family, she very much represents that overwhelming feeling - essential to the context of the play - of a life not lived. Would anything really have been any different? Are we shaped by other forces? By history, family, dreams, reality? Marina Carr brings all these elements into consideration, the first half of the play warm and humourous, but with a hint of denial, suspicion, anger and sad reflection lurking just beneath the surface. It still comes as a surprise when not long into the second half of the play, those undercurrents rise to the surface and hit you with a punch.
If it comes across that way, that's as much to do with the qualities of the production, direction and the performances. Ciaran Bagnall's stunning set design and lighting makes a bigger impact than you might imagine, setting the play firmly within the ideal of the reality that the Mai experiences, a modern environment looking out on Owl Lake, with a large window, a sunk level and an alcove that do more than just provide functional space for the drama. Andrew Flynn establishes mood and pacing unerringly and directs the actors to best achieve the dynamic between the characters within the overarching progress of the drama towards the impact of the final scenes. The personality and individuality of each of the women is all there in The Mai, and the richness and variety of those outlooks and the manner in which they deal with men and life in general is all there in the performances.
Decadent Theatre Company
Civic Theatre Tallaght, Dublin
Dublin Theatre Festival
28 September 2018