The Mai - into a world of 'naysayers' and 'strong females'
By Charlie Mcbride
MARINA CARR’S powerful play The Mai is coming to the Town Hall Theatre in a new staging from Galway’s Mephisto Theatre Company which is sure to be a definite highlight of the venue’s August programme.
First staged in 1994, at the Abbey, The Mai is a play about love - the kind that chews you up and spits you out. It focuses on four generations of women from one family who struggle to come to terms with the destructive effects their love affairs have on themselves, and those around them.
The story centres on The Mai, played by Caroline Lynch, and her husband Robert, a beguiling cello composer, played by Liam O’Brien. Around them gather The Mai’s relatives - the ‘Connemara Clique’ - headed by opium-smoking, oar-wielding, Grandma Fraochlán (Margaret O’Sullivan). This circle of women are unimpressed when Robert comes back into The Mai’s life after a long absence.
Yet The Mai cannot help surrendering to the passions of her tumultuous marriage, as observed by her 16-year-old daughter Millie, played by Grace Kiely who learns all about the punch that crazy love can pack.
This award-winning play, by one of Ireland’s most gifted modern playwrights, is sensual, potent, and bitterly funny. Mephisto’s new production of the work boasts a dynamic cast featuring some of the best local and national talent.
Directing this Mephisto staging is Shrule native and Galway Theatre Festival director, Róisín Stack. Ahead of The Mai’s Town Hall run, Stack took time out to talk about the play and production, commencing with the reasons why Mephisto were drawn to the work.
“We did a lot of reading trying to find the right play to do,” she tells me. “With The Mai, the dialogue is exceptionally well written and unlike some of Marina’s darker plays there is also quite a lot of humour in it. And there are so many strong female parts in it and we knew we had the pool of actresses who could do those parts really well.”
With rehearsals now in full swing, Stack reflects on the aspects of the play that have impressed themselves on her.
“When I read the play first I was very focused on the relationship between the Mai and her husband Robert, how that deteriorates, and the effect it has on everybody else,” she begins. “The play is narrated by their daughter Millie who jumps between her 16-year-old self and her 30-year-old self so in a way it’s actually her story.
“Now that we’ve been developing it in rehearsal I’m starting to see more why these particular scenes that she recalls are important to her and why she is choosing to tell those, so it’s that arc that has emerged as being equally important, if not more so, than the story of the Mai and her husband.”
The wrath of Grandma Fraochlán
Stack points out how there are many different themes in the play and one of the main ones is how the women in it have all been affected by their relationships, especially Grandma Fraochlán, and the Mai, and the Mai’s mother, who is deceased.
“There’s a great line where Grandma Fraochlán says ‘I would have hurled all seven of ye down the slopes of hell for one more night with my nine-fingered fisherman’,” says Stack. “So her passion for her husband far outweighed her passion for her children, and you can’t have both.
“That’s something that is very prevalent in Millie’s story. She’s telling this so she can talk about the affect it has had on her as a person and in her adult life. A lot of these things are coming to the fore now in rehearsals and it’s been very interesting exploring them.”
Grandma Fraochlán is a highly colourful figure within the play and Stack offers her thoughts on the character.
“She’s a huge character and we’ve got Maggie Sullivan, who did a lot of work with The Flying Pigs back in the day, in to play her,” she says. “Maggie’s fantastic, she has great comic timing and we needed someone really strong to play that role; Grandma Fraochlán is colourful but she is also quite a dark character, she is manipulative, she’s very outspoken - she says some really cutting things to her daughters and grand-daughters as well.
“But she still retains this colourfulness even though she can be sharp and biting as well. I think she is a character audiences will really like, she brings so much humour to the play, she’s always demanding wine and smoking opium, and getting up and dancing!”
What of the play’s sole male character, Robert?
“Robert is a tricky one because there are all these ominous comments made early on about how ‘It’s not going to work’,” Stack observes. “He returns after five years of being away and he is in this very female environment.
“The Mai’s family are always visiting and sticking their oar in so it’s very difficult for him to have the space to work on his relationship with The Mai and to prove himself with all these naysayers around him. But he’s far from perfect himself and as the play unfolds we see that as well.
“It’s a big challenge with Robert to make him likeable. The Mai and he have this really strong bond and this passion and love for each other and it’s about conveying that as believably as possible, that he really wants it to work and we don’t just see Robert as this villain, because he’s under the pressures of the family as well. Liam O’Brien from Limerick’s Bottom Dog is playing Robert and I’m pretty confident he’ll pull it off.”
With Robert being a composer, music also plays a role within the dynamics of the play and Mephisto’s staging benefits from the strong musical input of Béibhinn O’Connor.
“Béibhinn works with Galway Sinfonietta and Cois Cladaigh,” Stack notes. “She is a cellist herself and has been teaching our main actors the cello and she has composed music for all of the parts and we’ll be using that and it’s all original.”
Also featured in the Mephisto cast are Siobhán Donnellan, Helen Gregg, Frieda McGrath, and Mary McHugh. “It’s been a really lovely energy working with all the cast and I think it’s going to be a magical piece,” Stack concludes.
The Mai commences at the Town Hall Theatre with a preview performance on Thursday August 16 (tickets €14) and runs from Friday 17 to Saturday 25 (Sunday excluded) at 8pm nightly, with tickets at €18/14. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie