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.”