For someone with a penchant for dramatics, I am not one for drama. However, when the opportunity arose for me to see The Mai at The Everyman I decided I would not so much as google a thing about it. I wanted to experience it unburdened by previous reviews or plot spoilers. And I am so glad I did.
This play is so touchingly funny and woefully relatable. The story covers the relationship between The Mai, a forty-year-old teacher, and her family and husband, Robert, in the wake of his return after leaving her for four years. The opening scene documents his return to her where she welcomes him with open arms. The narrator, Millie, played by Rachel O’Byrne (who is a dead ringer for Keira Knightley), tells the audience how The Mai constructs a dream house overlooking Owl Lake in the west of Ireland and sits by the window, waiting for her husband to come back and see what she had built for him. The Mai, played by Derbhle Crotty, and her unconditional forgiveness and joy at Robert’s return is palpable from the stage. You find yourself as an audience member not much caring what he might have done in the past four years either because The Mai’s reaction is one of a sensuous woman delighting in the sexual charge that follows a brief absence of a lover – not the end of four years of abandonment. What’s heart breaking, and is only realised as the play develops, is The Mai’s dismissal of her achievements in his absence. Robert asks her playfully how she knew he would return to which she replies, “just knew”. When he asks her how she built the house she simply dons a coy smile and says, “just did”.
The naming of the character as “The Mai” rather than “Mai” makes it clear that this woman is a thought, or an idea, as she is different to every person rather than a solid individual. It is not that The Mai’s success is impossible without Robert by her side but that it was done as simply as she insists at the beginning of the play does seem to be unlikely. Also implausible is that any woman or man could be abandoned by their partner for so long and not deign to ask where they had been, what they had been thinking, what had taken them so long to come back, did they not think of the children?, etc. This is reinforced as the play unfolds when it transpires that The Mai is not who she pretends to be and we see, through the magnificently employed personalities and retold memories of her family, the various versions of The Mai that existed in Robert’s absence.
This culminates with what can only be described as an explosion of history towards the end of the play between all the characters where the realities of the past can no longer be brushed off by the pretences of the present. Granny Fraochlan’s own past seems to hauntingly foreshadow the deterioration of her own daughters’ well-being’s, and even that of her granddaughter. This is an aspect that was delicately weaved through the play by Marina Carr who said the character of Grandma Fraochlan “carries all the story; the heartbreak and the neuroses that are travelling down the lines of women”. Aidan Edmond, who plays Robert, seems to wilt beside his co-star through much of the play and I imagine this is to reinforce how The Mai constantly seems to outshine Robert, a fact confirmed later. In the closing stand-offs it is clear that Edmond is more than an adequate match for Crotty and the chemistry, in anger, lust, pity, and pleading, is explosive.
This is a tragic play but wildly entertaining, especially thanks to the figure of the 106-year-old Grandma Fraochlan, played by Stella McCusker. I do think it needs to be said however that it is dauntingly intimate. At parts, you feel as though you are the characters and at others you feel as though it is indecent for you to remain while they relive past hurts. It explores the concept of history permeating the present. It is a stark lesson in why you shouldn’t wait by the window for someone to come back. As Granny Fraochlan insists, “we can’t help repeatin’ Robert, we repeat, and we repeat, the orchestration may be different, but the tune is always the same”.
If you would like to see The Mai – and I recommend you do! – then check here for the upcoming dates and locations: http://decadenttheatrecompany.ie/the-mai/
Remember, The Everyman Cork has excellent student deals with tickets selling for as little as €9. Find them on Twitter @EverymanCork or their website www.everymancork.com for updates on upcoming shows.