Director with real bite and a bracing approach to the classics

Mon, Mar 4, 2013, 00:00

It’s not the first time Cartmell has reached for the Pietà as a reference: her production of Woman and Scarecrow resolved with the same image. Time and again she has been drawn to such unnatural tragedies: infanticides, incestuous desire and family revenge – the “dark stuff”, as she calls it.

“All my shows do seem to have common traits,” she admits. “They deal with the outsider a lot. They deal with dead people. They deal with adults for whom things happen too late. I don’t think the Pietà comes from anything other than when I studied art history I used to see a lot of paintings that stuck with me. It is extraordinarily visual, beautiful, potent. It captures everything in one image, without words, without anything.”

Cartmell often uses the vocabulary of a visual artist: “All I can say is that I’m chipping away at this big piece of marble,” she says of rehearsals. It’s tempting to see her theatre guided by the search for transcendent images, sometimes at the expense of giving attention to individual performances. But that isn’t how she sees it.

“I have ideas for scenes,” she says, “but there’s no storyboarding. Ultimately, it’s what the actors bring to it and that’s why casting is so important. You’re only as good as the people you’re working with.”

If Cartmell’s theatre has presented classic plays from bracing new angles, it has also allowed us fresh perspectives of familiar performers. Roe’s talents hardly went unnoticed before, but Titus and Festen better revealed his complexities, a fearsomeness that could dissolve into fragility, a talent for menace and delicious black humour. In what would have been a bold bit of casting, her other long-time collaborator, Olwen Fouéré, was mooted to play the Fool, the king’s jester and conscientious tormentor, now played by the excellent Hugh O’Conor (“I decided to go a different way with the part,” Cartmell says).

“I’ve always been more interested in the actors I work with than the characters they play,” she says. “It’s how the part and the person merge.” In casting, she is drawn by actors with “potential, an energy, a look in the eye”, and in rehearsals she suggests they take unconventional approaches that may allow for new discoveries. “I hope that when I’m in a rehearsal room with actors they are more fearless. They don’t have to stick within their own areas of comfort.”

Her future plans involve more opera work – she was to direct the Rake’s Progress for Opera Theatre Company, now postponed until 2014 – an artform that combines the imagistic and the visceral on a scale commensurate with her imagination. “I’ve never been that kind of director,” she says at one point. “When a play says you have a table and six chairs . . . I just don’t see the world in that way.”

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