Director with real bite and a bracing approach to the classics

Director Selina Cartmell

Director Selina Cartmell

Mon, Mar 4, 2013, 00:00

Selina Cartmell wanted the audience to feel ‘King Lear’ viscerally rather than as an intellectual exercise

In a production meeting a few weeks before King Lear opened at the Abbey, the director Selina Cartmell outlined one of her ideas and prepared herself for the response. There was a diplomatic pause. Had she considered using anything other than animals, she was asked? She had not. Would another breed of dog suffice? It wouldn’t. In short, did she have to add four Irish wolfhounds to the cast?

By Cartmell’s standards, this addition wasn’t such a tall order. Her previous work for the Abbey, on the Peacock stage, has made fascinating requests of both the theatre and its audience, plunging the space into a blizzard for 2007’s striking Woman and Scarecrow, or finding room for a Jacuzzi and abseiling commandos in 2008’s Big Love.

Her work for the Gate gave us a compelling Festen (2006) that literally threw new light on the theatre, and a brilliant industrial-punk Sweeney Todd (2007), that dispatched its victims not with a spurt of blood but a puff of flour. And her own Siren Productions reconceived Medea as an urban nightmare behind picket-fence domesticity, Macbeth as a surreal tale of dictatorial excess and chainsaw massacres, and, perhaps most memorably, Shakespeare’s “problem play” Titus Andronicus – rife with rapes, mutilations and cannibalism – as a startling and stylised family drama. Easily the most visionary director working in Ireland today, Cartmell’s ideas always have bite, whether they contain animals or not.

“I wanted it to be timeless,” she said of King Lear, a story of familial bonds, rash disinheritance, betrayal and despair. “Shakespeare has set it in a pre-Christian world. I want to tap into that pagan, ancient energy. The amount of times that animals are mentioned: the daughters are called tigers; they’re called snakes.”

Another character calls them “dog-hearted”, and although the wolfhounds might suggest an Irish Lear (and signal a customarily subtle injoke about the Abbey Theatre’s logo), Cartmell was aiming for something mythical, not literal. “That raw animal energy really interests me. As does making it resonant for today. I want the audience to feel it viscerally rather than treating it like an intellectual exercise.”

That could sum up Cartmell’s approach to classics, which she styles with dreamlike imagery and nightmarish jolts, a flair for theatricality that has secured her an apprenticeship with Julie Taymor, two Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards for direction, and an increasingly international career.

King Lear (continuing at the Abbey until March 23rd) had long fascinated her. In 2006, when she directed Titus Andronicus – with Owen Roe as the general reduced to madness, revenge and experimental cookery – they made a pact to one day do Lear together, whose tragedy bears some uncanny similarities to the earlier work – albeit much more sobering ones.

There is one scene in particular that drew Cartmell to the play. “It’s the end of his journey,” she says. “It is that cry in the dark, the howls of Lear, and the Pietà of the moment when he carries Cordelia on. It has always made me shiver and cry when I’ve read it. I’ve seen Lear many times and I’ve never been moved to the point where an audience should be moved.”

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