The Mai by Marina Carr. YSCP Upstage Centre York 16th-19th March 2016
I have never written reviews before. I’m not entirely sure that I am insightful or intelligent enough and have always wondered why anybody would be interested in hearing my thoughts. If, at this early juncture, you are finding yourself tending to agree then by all means stop reading now (although why not have a browse of this website while you’re here?).
Still with me? Very well. Here are my thoughts.
Having had the honour of being invited to the preview of this latest offering from York’s Settlement Players I found that the production warranted a little more feedback than a flippant tweet could offer. However I had a fear, as well as a fact I should own up to. I have good friends and acquaintances within this company. It would be very easy to rave unconditionally in unstinting support if it wasn’t for one problem; I am not particularly good at lying. Plus I don’t believe in singing the praises of everything I see because then nobody would believe me when I really do love something. I was certainly looking forward to seeing this show but I did have this nagging fear of “what if I really don’t like it?”
That was more about me. Sorry. Still with me? Very well, here are my thoughts.
On the face of it The Mai is a straight forward play about the strong yet disfunctional nature (suffocating perhaps) of a large Irish family, stretching out over generations but laid bare for all to see over a short period of time. It is, in essence, a memory play and it evokes comparisons with Brian Friel’s fabulous Dancing at Lughnasa. Both written and produced around the same time, The Mai offers a more modern and middle class perspective on the complexities of relationships within families than Friel’s play. However there is more to this play. The audience has to work hard to follow the various relationships (even, with slightly confusing casting, to identify which characters belong to which generation). The story is seen through the eyes of Millie, the fourth generation of women (played with great maturity by Beth Sharrock) and while we share the experience with her she doesn’t actually commentate, unlike Michael in Dancing at Lughnasa. In fact she doesn’t even help the audience to decipher who she is talking about and what their relationships are but rather she floats through a lake of beautiful language and imagery, leaving us to gradually work things out for ourselves. The audience has to invest in this play, but the benefits in doing so are clear when you do. You feel more involved in it; even, somewhat alarmingly, drawing comparisons and resonances with your own family (unless you are fortunate to have a family with no issues whatsoever, if such families do indeed exist). It isn’t Millie’s story but she helps to share, through her seemingly unrelated storytelling, the impact of her relatives in shaping her own life.
So whose story is it? Well, primarily that of The Mai, the desperate dreamer and window watcher played solidly by Settlement stalwart Beryl Nairn. She is the main protagonist who will try at all costs to keep her philandering husband from straying again having attempted to lure him back with a new start in a house she has built herself, making many sacrifices along the way. (Where the last Settlement Players production saw the demise of The Cherry Orchard as signifying the end of an era for a family, here we see a new plot – of land rather than narrative – attempting to signify a new start, whilst ultimately playing its part in the destruction). In the character of The Mai, Carr uses influences of Greek Tragedy alongside Millie’s Irish folk tales but in truth the storytelling doesn’t end there. Each of the women in this play could have spin-off plays written about them and the audience is left with so much to discuss and dissect. Elizabeth Elsworth’s commanding Grandma Fraochlan still yearns for her “nine-fingered fisherman” to the detriment of any maternal feeling toward her own daughters; they in turn berate and meddle in the affairs of their nieces who equally show little interest in the next generation down. There is little respect for men (apart from Damian Fynes’ nasty Robert all other men are merely mentioned either for their irrational behaviour or for the ability to kill off their mother in childbirth) and yet all these women are searching in vain for love. There is love, and indeed good humour, but only between siblings and the impact on the children doesn’t show any sign of improving down the family tree. The true tragedy of the piece is the neglect of the children and Carr makes this all the more stark in choosing to isolate Millie even more by making no reference to her relationships with her own siblings.
Jan Kirk’s production is beautiful in its simplicity, underscored somewhat menacingly by Oliver Mills’ original composition. Usually in a community show such as this there tends to be a weak link but I can safely say that there isn’t here. Neither is there a stand-out shining light, and yet it is the fabulous sense of ensemble that makes this production so engaging. Amid the confrontation are genuine moments of affection between siblings. The song shared between Mai and her sisters (Helen Sant and Jessica Murray) is a delightful moment while the comic double-act of the fearsome aunts played by Sophie Buckley and Vivienne Clare (themselves put upon by the dreaded Grandma) give the play a perfect lift at just the right moment. Buckley excels with a superb sprinkling of compassion to forgive her otherwise austere disposition. In Ab Fab terms she is an elderly Saffron to her mother’s Eddie. For her part Elsworth’s Grandma has some wonderfully opium-fuelled hallucinations which allow you to love her in spite of her faults and all of these comical moments (which I’m sure will develop further with the addition of an audience) help you to overlook the impending tragedy.
This wasn’t intended to be such a long review, but in truth there is so much to consider and subsequently to discuss from this production of The Mai that really you need to see it to fully understand. (If you have the stamina after a rather lengthy show you could always find a cast member willing to discuss it further with you at the pub down the road). Overall this is the York Settlement Players at their best and I’m grateful to them for introducing me to this powerful play with such fantastic roles for female actors to sink their teeth into. The balance between the absurd Grandma, the traditional aunts, the flighty Mai and the invisible Millie all contributes to a very powerful production.