Director with real bite and a bracing approach to the classics


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.”

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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