Marina Carr: ‘There’s a whole world of women’s work that isn’t being seen’

Marina Carr had barely finished college when she sent her first completed play, Ullaloo, into the Abbey Theatre’s literary department. One of the readers on the panel was the director Philip Hardy. After reading Carr’s script, he asked her if she would be interested in working with his company, Crooked Sixpence, on a new show they were trying to get off the ground. He had employed a group of actors and secured a venue, but he had a problem: there was no script. Thirty years later, Carr remembers the experience with wonder. “If you can imagine, I was barely 20, had never had anything produced before; it was amazing to think that he would take a risk on a young writer like that. We rehearsed in the old CIÉ building in Temple Bar, and were basically working around this huge hole in the floor. But we were paid £50 each. It was proper work. I would write a scene every night, go in the next day and the cast would rehearse it. I would go home that night and write another, and so on. That is how it worked. Within two weeks we had a play.”

That play was Low in the Dark, an absurdist comedy with a cast of characters that included a woman trapped in a bath producing endless babies, and someone called Curtains, who is, literally, a pair of curtains. For a first professional experience, Carr says, she could not have asked for more. “It was an incredible, fantastic immersion in theatre for a new writer. Working like that, intensely, in the room with actors, you really got to understand the different roles of director, actor, how it all comes together. What a privilege! The play wasn’t workshopped to death before you had written it, which is what often happens now.”

We in the West survive only because of the wounds on the other side of the world, where people are starving and being tortured and children are drowning trying to escape

Despite its overt Beckettian qualities (“I was obsessed with Beckett at the time. He was just pouring off me”), Low in the Dark marked Carr out as a unique new voice in Irish theatre. Although her work would shift radically in the next few years, it explored many themes that Carr would return to again and again over the span of her career: female sexuality, gender representation, motherhood, a tortured kind of love. It premiered at Project Arts Centre, which was in its famously dilapidated condition. “The roof leaked,” Carr says. “It was a mess. It was brilliant.”

In October, Carr’s 2015 play Hecuba will receive its Irish premiere at the same, now transformed, Temple Bar venue and she is delighted by the symmetry. “It’s like going back to source,” she says, laughing. “It is all coming full circle.” Hecuba will be the first major production of an original play by Carr to be produced in Ireland since 2016, when her ambitious adaptation of Anna Karenina was brought to the stage by Wayne Jordan at the Abbey Theatre. It was commissioned in 2014 by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which invited her to rework a classic text for the contemporary stage. Having previously presented the RSC with a riff on King Lear (The Cordelia Dream in 2008), Carr cast her imagination back to the ancient Greek dramatists.

A young Marina Carr at work in Temple Bar. Her first play, Low in the Dark, was performed at the Project Arts Centre in 1989. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
A young Marina Carr at work in Temple Bar. Her first play, Low in the Dark, was performed at the Project Arts Centre in 1989. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Their work has always fascinated her, and their influence can be seen both obviously and obliquely across her oeuvre: By the Bog of Cats invokes the myth of Medea, Ariel employs the loose structure of The Oresteia, and Phaedra Backwards investigates the psychology of the doomed Greek heroine by presenting her life in reverse. When the RSC issued this new invitation, Carr immediately thought of Hecuba – wife of Priam, king of Troy – and her fate in the aftermath of the city’s destruction. Made love to by Apollo and enslaved by Odysseus, Hecuba has an extraordinary story that doesn’t end well. As a mother of 19, she gave birth to heroes (the distinguished warriors, Hector and Paris) and a prophetess (the doomed Cassandra), but as a fallen Queen, she sees each and every one of them die. Carr was attracted to retelling her story because she “always disagreed with Euripides’ version”, which gives the benighted queen the title role but strips all power and dignity from her. 

Carr was interested in probing what “a woman’s life lived through war was like. What she might have suffered, to have her children sacrificed. What that might have meant.” However, she was also pointedly interested in the specific context underlying the representation of Hecuba. “At the time the play was performed, the Greeks were establishing the polis and theatre had a very particular function. It was a way of educating people as to how to be a citizen. So Euripides wrote Hecuba as a salutary tale for how not to be a woman. His version was a morality tale, a warning about the parameters of woman’s place. It was basically a way of putting manners on her.” 

The culture from which Hecuba emerged may have petered out thousands of years ago, but Carr’s words ring true for all of the female characters in her various work. From Hester Swayne in the mythic landscape of By the Bog of Cats, to the postnatally depressed heroine of Portia Coughlan; from all three generations of women in her epic family saga, The Mai, to the two competing women in the lonely cityscape of Marble. If they can be pinned down to any essence at all, Carr’s female characters are united in their struggle against the limited role proscribed to them as women.

Hecuba cannot be narrowly defined by its feminism, however. There were also contemporary political resonances that attracted Carr to the tale. Hecuba’s story “is also a story of a city, a culture, a history destroyed. It is about this catastrophic genocide, how war impacts upon individuals, how we treat our children, how we try to save our children. We are particularly cosseted in the West at the moment but there is a lot coming our way: the division between left and right, the erosion of tolerance. We survive only because of the wounds on the other side of the world, where people are starving and being tortured and children are drowning trying to escape.” History comes full circle, just like Carr’s own history has: “there are patterns in everything.”

Marina Carr: ‘There are only so many times you can be discovered.’ Photograph: Tom Honan
Marina Carr: ‘There are only so many times you can be discovered.’ Photograph: Tom Honan

Carr has just come from the first read-through on the day that we meet, and she is delighted, she says, to revisit the play again in rehearsals. Her role in the room “is one of quiet observer”. To “be there if a director or actor might want to talk to me about the text.” However, Carr also admits she likes to be there “just for the pleasure of it, watching the actors immerse themselves so completely. There’s a kind of alchemy in it. It is fascinating to watch, amazing to be around. It reminds me why I was never cut out to be an actor.” She gave acting a brief whirl in her days at University College Dublin, but disappeared quickly backstage. 

Carr is excited that Irish audiences will have a chance to see Hecuba too, almost three years after Rough Magic Theatre Company approached her about staging it. (A heavily condensed version of the play was recorded by RTÉ Radio Drama in 2018.) There were funding issues, then scheduling issues, but also, Carr explains, “there really is a very long gestation between the time you finish a play and it is put on. In some cases a play might be published and it still hasn’t had the light of day, like several of mine. That’s not a grievance. It is just a fact. There is always a long lead-in time when you are dealing with institutions. There are budgets, politics, it might not fit in with what else they want to do that season. Writers find it irritating, but there’s nothing in it.”

When you are older it is easier to accept that you are not the hot thing any more. People are always fascinated by the new at the expense of the more seasoned

She takes the same sanguine stance when considering her own place in Irish theatre. “I have no illusions,” she says, “about how difficult it is to be considered equal in the canon. It may be reductive to divide it by gender – and there are so many brilliant writers who don’t get recognition – but it is impossible not to see how underrepresented women are, that there is a whole world of women’s work that isn’t being seen.” The problem, she says, is structural, not just institutional, and she applies the same long view to the Abbey Theatre’s recent problems. While she sympathises with current complaints about the theatre’s management, she also insists that she is “long enough in the tooth to be able to see that what’s happening is part of a pattern” that defines the Abbey’s recent history. “Someone new gets the job, there is a honeymoon period, a crisis – which is resolved or it isn’t – they leave and then it is up to the next person, who has the same cycle to confront. It has been the same with the last four directors. At the very least, it tells us how passionate we are about the culture and arts, how important people think the National Theatre still is.”

She is equally philosophical about her own place within that history. “Look, there are only so many times you can be discovered,” she says, laughing. “But, for me, the work comes in cycles anyway. You get your play on and everyone is talking, and then you have a period of wilderness. You get your work done and then you surface again, becoming interesting for people, and then it’s out to the wilderness once more. I’m in my third decade, so I can appreciate the pattern. When you are older it is easier to accept that you are not the hot thing any more. People are always fascinated by the new at the expense of the more seasoned. ‘Marina Carr! I thought we did away with her a decade ago!’ That is just the way it is, but it’s always important to remember what the elders have lived through.”

“So here I am, surfacing,” she says, “and I expect to be beheaded again. And then I will be off to the wilderness.”

Hecuba runs at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, from September 25th to October 6th, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival