In a summer house on the Isle of Wight, surrounded by the eternal wrest of ocean waves, a crushingly disappointed boy has recently been put to bed. His protective mother stares at a lighthouse across the bay, dreading his recollection of the day for years to come. “Children never forget,” she thinks.
What happens next in Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse is a transformation like something out of a philosophy book. Allowed a moment uninterrupted by family and guests, Mrs Ramsay’s mind sinks into the purest and most intimate part of her self, shedding the restless struggles of parenthood and marriage and reconnecting, somewhere in the inky black depths, with the infinite potential of being in the world. She returns to the surface of her life enraptured, a person braided from the same glistering reality as the wonders of the natural world: trees, streams and flowers. “It is enough!” she says.
Metaphysics can be emotionally stirring in Woolf’s 1927 novel, which is woven from its characters’ multitudinous thoughts – the stream of consciousness flights of modernist fiction. Such is the gamble of Marina Carr’s new play adaptation, transferring a story light on plot and dialogue but fraught with internal conflict onto a stage without appearing motionless and static. How do you perform the most intimate, purest expression of who somebody is?
There is risk of Carr pulling it off. The playwright made bold new approaches to her plays midway through the last decade, though Irish audiences were only recently tipped off. A new version of Euripides’s ancient tragedy Hecuba – first seen in London in 2015, before receiving an Irish premiere in 2019 – had dialogue written not as realistic speech but instead as perspective shifts, with characters witnessing events from their own point of view while simultaneously studying the actions of others. It brought an otherworldly drama down to earth as a more human story.
“I was bored with everything being speech spoken out. I wanted more,” she says, recalling a point of frustration. The departure was partially inspired by Woolf. Carr had been a devoted fan for 20 years when she discovered her own stories could be ripe with suspense and irony when told through characters’ internal thoughts. “When you’re talking to someone in real life, there is a silent voice in your head clocking what you’re saying, commenting on it but also what the other person is saying to you,” she says.
In the familiarly dim light of a Dublin theatre auditorium reawakened after months of lockdown, Carr sits across from Derbhle Crotty, who has been cast as Mrs Ramsay. They are as familiar as long-time friends. When asked if she agrees on one specific point, Crotty responds full of reverence. (“Marina, you are articulating my experience,” she says.) Carr is less afraid to be unserious, relishing the discomfort of awkward revelations. “You mean I only got you by default?” she teases, when Crotty reveals she had initially turned down a role in The Mai, Carr’s breakthrough mainstream play from 1994, which she would go on to perform in.
Their discussion about Woolf’s immense achievement seems an appropriate beacon for the two artists, both at the dawn of their fourth decade in theatre and continuing to evolve. As Carr shows new advances in playwriting, Crotty is faced with the complex task of transmuting philosophy into performance. For the scene where Mrs Ramsay sinks into her pure inner state – Woolf called it her “wedge of darkness” – the actor describes a dive into thought that sounds almost like dunking below water and resurfacing for oxygen. “It’s a rare thing to be asked to deliver,” she says.
Crotty is also collaborating with a director she’s never worked with before. She had heard people describe Annabelle Comyn’s productions as “forensic” but she doesn’t think that entirely covers it. “Her work is more sensitive than that,” she says. Certainly intuitive, the stage version of To the Lighthouse, like other productions derailed by the pandemic, underwent an ingenious act of adaption. Premiering it as a streamed theatre production, Comyn has reimagined her staging, enlisting filmmaker José Miguel Jiménez to experiment with the play’s focalisations and perspective-shifts. A necessity has become an innovation.
Tense family holiday
Woolf’s novel begins in the middle of a tense family holiday, with Mrs Ramsay assuring her son he will be brought to visit a local lighthouse, a trip that could become an eternally joyful memory. He is supposed to be accompanied by Mr Ramsay, a moody academic whose insecurities are easily shaken by their resident houseguests. These events unfold before a cataclysmic passage of time flows through the midway point of the story, leaving the summer home lying empty during the first World War, upending everything before what’s left of the Ramsay family and their guests return.
If the guardian-like Mrs Ramsay and the suffocatingly grieving Mr Ramsay are, as famously speculated, evocations of Woolf’s own parents, Julia Stephen and Leslie Stephen, Carr has allowed for further biographical intrigue. There will be “a glimpse” of Crotty and Declan Conlon, who play Mrs Ramsay and Mr Ramsay, also becoming Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard Woolf, providing an intriguing contrast between the two couples’ marriages.
“Children never forget,” thinks Mrs Ramsay. Virginia, who described writing To the Lighthouse like an exorcism, seemed to be haunted by her parents’ ghosts.
Inheritance between generations
Woolf’s novel raises questions about inheritance between generations, and as Crotty and Carr look back on the early years of their careers they point out the gulf between age groups. Both agree it was difficult to find useful guidance as theatre artists in their 20s during the 1990s, while the older guard of established artists felt like a separate world apart – though that didn’t stop many of them from giving Carr unsolicited script notes, often when she sat at the Abbey Theatre bar.
Encouragingly, Crotty’s fondest memories seem to involve them forging their own path. She recalls one evening during the London run of Carr’s drama Portia Coughlan in 1996, a play she originated the lead role in, when they jollily instructed a taxi driver to repeatedly drive by the Royal Court Theatre just to see Carr’s name lit up in its bright marquee over and over. “It was such an exciting time and we knew it. I really thought it would continue at that breathless pace but it doesn’t,” says Crotty.
“No. You have to grow up,” says Carr.
If now, 25 years later, they are members of that established guard, they are definitely alive to the ambition of generations following them. While Carr seems most surefooted in an egalitarian sense of feminism, saying its contemporary intersectionality is better expressed by people younger than her, recently there have been signs that her voice was prescient. Since 2018, many of her dramas from the 1990s have been revived, including a planned production of Portia Coughlan starring Ruth Negga.
Plays like Portia Coughlan, The Mai and On Rafferty’s Hill contain graphic descriptions of women’s rage. After the current era’s agonising revelations about harassment and consent, could these plays have renewed appeal because they work off recent antagonisms?
She says the inspiration for those furious women characters came from her past, a wild-sounding family tree populated by “strong Connemara women who were school teachers, who raised 25 children each, knitted the Aran pattern, pulled children out of the fire, fought their husbands.
“The generations beneath me are able to articulate the disparity around them in a way that I didn’t have the vocabulary for. I was just trying to survive, and maybe that is a kind of legacy,” she says.
Like Woolf before her, Carr is intimate with grief. Both of her parents are dead. She seems unafraid to discuss the inevitability of her own death, and aware of important duties to be performed beforehand, both personal and professional. She wants to continue to innovate as an artist. She’s worried about sounding arrogant in expressing this; she believes she has a right to the honour won by her achievements.
“There comes a time when suddenly you’re at the top of the mountain and you’re the next one to jump off. Your parents have jumped and now your next. With that comes a bit of responsibility, I think, to the ones coming behind you but also to yourself. You have to claim, rightfully, what is yours,” she says.
To the Lighthouse will broadcast from June 25th-27th as part of Cork Midsummer Festival