The Mai – Reviews


Review by P. McGovern

Marina Carr’s The Mai has lost none of its social resonance or theatrical impact in the almost 25 years since its first production.  In fact, were it written today it might seem that many of its themes were drawn in because of their connection to contemporary or recent events. Divorce, emotional abuse, inter-racial marriage, even abortion are all stitched into the fabric of the play. However, far from seeming imposed, these subjects arise naturally from the lived experience of four generations of women. More accurately, perhaps, they arise from the stories of their lives as told by the women – not quite the same thing, as various characters edit or embroider their experiences of relationships with men. One character takes frequent flight into the realms of fantasy about her ancestry while another clings to an idealised version of the family life she struggles to create, only reluctantly conceding that in fact it is all “fucking Family Solidarity shite”.

Andrew Flynn’s luminous production is directed with unflinching clarity. Derbhle Crotty’s Mai swings between hope, despair and raw savage anger as she deals with the philandering and casual neglect of a callous husband.  Caught up in his own need for excitement and sexual adventure, Aidan Redmond’s Robert is blinded to his responsibilities as husband and father. Crotty’s performance is up there with her best while Redmond impresses as her self-absorbed, detached, feckless other half, deluded by his aspiration to be a great composer. The final confrontation between the two, following one humiliation too many, is just one of the many scenes beautifully orchestrated by director and actors.

Stella McCusker’s Grandma Fraochlán is part Greek Chorus, making her acerbic observations on the actions and past history of others, and part comic, defusing the tension of the central narrative. As the Mai’s sister, Beck, Maeve Fitzgerald is convincingly offbeat, unconventional but warm-hearted. The part of the other sister, Connie, is somewhat underwritten, but Lesley Conroy does everything asked of her, resisting the temptation to do too much to bulk up the role. Empathy flows between the three sisters in scenes where pretence is discarded, honesty surfaces and shared memories bring a sense of solidarity and intimacy.

Another pair of sisters, aunts Julie (Marion O’Dwyer) and Agnes (Joan Sheehy) bring both humour and seriousness to the drama. O’Dwyer reflects the old judgmental Ireland, all rigid, self-righteous piety and belligerence, intolerant of dissent or independence. Sheehy’s Agnes is a perfect foil to Julie, warm-hearted and nuanced, trying to defuse her aggression and calm things down.

Rachel O’Byrne’s narrator, Millie, completes a great cast, one that together with director Flynn, combines to do justice to Carr’s play, a play that entertains as it chills and never ceases to hold our interest. It continues its run at The Civic theatre Tallaght until September 29th, touring to Mermaid Arts Centre (October 2nd) and Town Hall Theatre Galway  (October 4th – 6th). If it comes to a venue near you, don’t miss it.


Cast and Creative Team
Directed by Andrew Flynn
Cast includes: Leslie Conroy, Derbhle Crotty, Maeve FitzGerald, Stella McCusker, Rachel O’Byrne, Marion O’Dwyer, Aidan Redmond and Joan Sheehy
Set and Lighting Design: Ciaran Bagnall
Costume Design: Niamh Lunny
Music and Sound Design: Carl Kennedy



AAA-3starsMarina Carr’s first full-length play is perhaps her most conventional. Carr’s work frequently blurs the boundaries between our world and another, but in The Mai the dark and slippery dimensionality that is her trademark is held within the structure of a traditional memory play.

In the opening moments we meet Millie (Rachel O’Byrne), who reflects on the dissolution of her parents’ marriage and the tragic death of her mother. This frame foregrounds the plot’s outcome, and is vital for keeping sentimentality at bay. Despite a flair for romantic fantasy, Carr’s dramatic vision is uncompromising in its realism: just ask Grandma Fraochlán’s girls to tell you about their childhood.

As Grandma Fraochlán, Stella McCusker proves herself a spellbinding storyteller, while her physical frailty only makes her frank selfishness and acid tongue funnier. Marion O’Dwyer and Joan Sheehy play her daughters, Julie and Agnes, with the stiff, pinched formality of caricature, which is wonderfully effective in illuminating the hypocrisies of social propriety. Their bickering provides some of the most memorable moments of the production.

The most moving moments come from Derbhle Crotty, who is both tough and tender as the Mai, the family figurehead. As a mother she yearns to do better; as a wife she merely yearns to be loved. It is remarkable how fresh Carr’s snapshot of the complexity of womanhood remains after 24 years.

The play’s real tragedy, however, is not the death of the Mai but the impact that it has on the next generation. Just as poor, martyred Ellen suffered at the hands of her mother’s decisions, and the Mai suffered in the wake of her own mother’s death, so it is Millie, and her invisible siblings, who suffer the consequences of their parents’ actions.

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 Witch, crone, mother, virgin, wife, whore. Female archetypes that Marina Carr sets out to challenge and subvert in the powerful and prescient “The Mai.” First produced in 1994, “The Mai” was not only a play of its time, it was a play ahead of its time. And a play which, if some of its references seem a little dated today, is still deeply and powerfully resonant.

In Decadent’s current production, director Andrew Flynn makes some strong choices that position “The Mai” in some new and interesting ways. Following The Mai and her family, as well as her returned husband Robert, during some key days in 1979 and 1980 at her new home on Owl Lake, Carr’s taut script is stepped in family history, story telling, and the riches of landscape. A landscape Ciaran Bagnall’s lighting and set design sets about subverting. Indeed, Carr’s landscape in which energies and forces seethe beneath the surface becomes non-existent. Instead, energy, like these women, is trapped within a world where nature is twisted into wooden floorboards and towering beams, the world outside awash in cold light beyond the large glass window. Indeed, Bagnall’s evocative use of light, and Carl Kennedy’s brooding music design, hint at the freezing of these undercurrents underneath the unseen landscape these women have become alienated from. Throughout “The Mai” the pull between binary tensions looms large. Family and self, motherhood and independence, the pagan and the Christian, the trapped and the free. The empty chair and music stand become evocative of presences that are more felt in absence, be they departed husbands, old stories and memories, or your own neglected talents and lifeblood. Any of which can bring momentary joy or utter destruction.

If four generations of women, trapped in lives, roles, and stories passed down as an invisible legacy, find blood is thicker than water, it may not be quite thick enough. If most share a desire for romanticised, and often unworthy men who usually go away, some go so far as to resent being mothers and would consign their children to hell for just one more day with the man they love. Indeed, it’s an old story, one often passed from larger than life mothers down to their broken and neglected daughters. From Stella McCusker’s earthy, centenarian Grandma Fraochlán, to Marion O’Dwyer’s uptight, scene stealing Julie. From Derbhle Crotty’s superbly understated The Mai, to Rachel O’Byrne’s near invisible Millie, hovering like a ghost, eavesdropping on memories and thoughts, like a child overhearing conversations they were never intended for hear. Around which Meave Fitzgerald’s Beck, Joan Sheehy’s Agnes, and Lesley Conroy’s Connie both challenge and support the status quo. At the centre of which an impressive Aidan Redmond’s self serving, solitary, stone-in-their-shoe Robert, brings them closer together yet drives them further apart.

With the freezing of these women’s vital energies there’s a coldness and restraint at the heart of this production. One whose volcanic eruption between The Mai and Robert only ever releases dark plumes of smoke, never quite finding the lava. Under Flynn’s direction, Carr’s tale of mad proud women focuses on the manner of their entrapment rather than on that which is entrapped. If this lends itself to less power and visceral immediacy, it also offers a fresh way to look at Carr’s “The Mai.” One which foregrounds the shackles, societal, self imposed, and hereditary, which women are often enslaved by. And from which they crave release. Providing Stockholm Syndrome hasn’t taken too deep a hold.

“The Mai” by Marina Carr, produced by Decadent, runs at The Civic Tallaght as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2018 until September 29 before touring.





Review by Sarah Hoover

The Mai demonstrates Marina Carr’s ability to gender-bend mythology and transport it into modernity, revealing the tragic consequences of single-minded passion for four generations of women. Andrew Flynn’s direction in the Decadent production focuses on the relationships between them both as mythology and as everyday women within Irish society, skilfully creating an ensemble performance full of shadows and reflections.

Hundred-year-old Grandma Fraochlán (wild and vulnerable as played by Stella McCusker), illegitimate child of an island woman and mysterious Spanish sailor, loved her nine-fingered fisherman so deeply that she had no love left for their children. Some, like Julie (Marion O’Dwyer), sourly rebelled against impractical entanglement, or disappeared into spinsterhood like Agnes (Joan Sheehy). The daughter she loved deeply, Ellen, died early, leaving Grandma to raise the Mai (Derbhle Crotty) and her sisters Beck (Maeve Fitzgerald) and Connie (Lesley Conroy). At near forty, the Mai is a contemporary version of her grandmother. She uses the greater freedoms for women in her time to build a powerful career and raise a beautiful house (a structural set full of reflections by Ciaran Bagnall) in which to wait for the husband who has discarded her, Robert (Aidan Redmond, whose brooding presence influences the stage even in his absence). The Mai’s daughter Millie (Rachel O’ Byrne) narrates her memory of the house by Owl Lake with both acceptance and rage that are the legacy of her childhood witnessing the Mai’s grief and a reflection of her aunts and great-aunt’s longing for maternal love.

By giving a strong ensemble performance, the Decadent actors balance that rage against compassion for those who feel it and suffer from it. Dark humor, much of it brought by O’Dwyer, Sheehy, and O’Byrne, bubbles uncontrollably through the tragedy. Sadness, wildness, and love move through the gorgeous string-based score by Carl Kennedy as well. Anger and frustration with the Mai notwithstanding, Connie and Beck lament along with their sister in a scene filled with the steady warmth of familial love as well as desperation. Millie, sharing a rare moment of adult honesty with her mother, reaches to the heart of her parents’ relationship: “I can’t think of a reason to go on without him,” the Mai says. “You’ve never tried,” Millie answers, but never leaves her mother’s side.

The play centres on the Mai as mythological goddess/wife, and the scene in which her rage against Robert explodes brings the performance back to this central theme. Costumed by Niamh Lunny in a restrictive, pillar-like dress and the feathered shawl of her mythological counterpart, Crotty deftly combines stillness and tension to show a woman implacably rooted in her place, a mountain gone volcanic. She never gives an inch to Robert, but her own grief drops her to her knees.

At a time when we struggle to understand the forces that keep people in unhappy or even dangerous situations, The Mai offers a kind but unflinching view of shadows from our histories that influence present behaviour. The Mai and her family rage against the reflections of those who, as Millie says, “appear briefly in our lives and leave them forever.”