Thursday 23 November 2017

Gate's new broom looks likely to sweep very clean

Emer O'Kelly finds both meat and potatoes in Selina Cartmell's vision for the Gate Theatre

Director of the Gate Theatre Selina Cartmell
Director of the Gate Theatre Selina Cartmell

Emer O'Kelly

There was no blood on the floor at the Gate Theatre on Wednesday when Selina Cartmell announced her programme for her first year as artistic director. But it was revolutionary nonetheless.

Graciously, she acknowledged that the international classical repertory is in the Gate's DNA, and has been from its foundation in 1928.

What she did not say was that for the last 20-odd years, there has been a failure to take on board the tougher-fibred plays from latter day masters which have long become classics.

Edwards-MacLiammoir in their day were avant garde, and built and renewed audiences on their programming by shaking them up. (They began with Ibsen.)

In recent years the Gate has depended largely on re-cycling "frock comedies" presented in a fashion stylistically inter-changeable between authors, and appealing to an ageing audience profile who actively disliked anything disturbing or challenging. Significantly, the Gate's major achievements of recent years, the Beckett and Pinter seasons which were justly admired when they toured outside the country, left the core Gate audience cold.

One of the first times I saw Cartmell's inspirational direction was nearly 10 years ago in a disturbing and skin-crawling Macbeth played in the round, in what was then the Empty Space in Smock Alley. Her Macbeth was a handsome young firebrand in sexual thrall to a woman old enough to be his mother: Lady Macbeth stripped for action almost on the moment of her husband's return from the battlefield. The three witches were one woman: hugely pregnant, and pushing a bawling baby in a pram. And the hired murderer sniggered through his butchery with a chainsaw. It was memorable.

So Cartmell gets to the heart of things, intelligently and unflinchingly, but without losing a sense of fun. Her first production will be musical theatre: the space turned into a massive ballroom (sans seats) as Alexander Wright adapts and directs an immersive version of The Great Gatsby.

Disempowerment is the topic for the second offering, with the Irish premiere of Nina Raines's acclaimed Tribes, which portrays a highly intellectual, dysfunctional family from the perspective of a deaf son. The production will be transposed from England to affluent south Dublin, and will be directed by Oonagh Murphy.

For Christmas, we'll get The Red Shoes, but being Cartmell, it doesn't sound as though there'll be any soft-centred prettiness. This version is a new work by award-winning (and Dublin born and reared) Nancy Harris, one of the brightest lights among younger playwrights on the London scene.

It's a specially commissioned new take on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, with a little girl lifted from drabness by the gift of a pair of red shoes. Cartmell will direct this one herself. (Perhaps the only downside of her new position is likely to be a lack of time to undertake the direction of many of the productions in her remit.)

When the English Stage Company began life in the Royal Court in 1956, the young writer John Osborne and his cast, which included Joan Plowright, didn't know they were about to change the face of western English-speaking theatre forever. But that's what Look Back in Anger did, and it remains a coruscating piece of drama.

Annabelle Comyn will direct a production of it in February (not quite the Irish premiere claimed in Cartmell's programme: I saw a version of it in the old Eblana Theatre when I was still at school, with, if memory serves, the late Susan FitzGerald as Alison.)

The cabaret singer Camille O'Sullivan performed at Cartmell's launch, and she will feature again next spring, when she, Feargal Murray, and Elizabeth Freestone present a musical version of Shakespeare's The Rape Of Lucrece, another piece deserving of the word "coruscating" even in its own time. Even reading it lifts the hair on your head.

Cartmell herself will be back in the rehearsal room for Assassins, the Sondheim musical which will go on stage in April next year. Cathal Synnott, a Gate stalwart, will be the musical director for this version of a study of the assassins and would-be assassins of US presidents pursuing together a skewed version of the American dream.

The Cartmell first season, generically titled The Outsider, will come to a close with another interior monologue, as it were, with Roddy Doyle's The Snapper in a new, specially commissioned stage version.

Looking at the programme, it seems that Selina Cartmell has ticked all the required boxes of current political correctness with inclusion a visible element in her choices. But one gets the impression that it's artistically driven, rather than that she set herself out to pander to any form of "ism".

The result is a programme of stimulating, broad-based, fascinating theatre which would be a credit to any artistic director. For the Gate, which some committed theatre-goers and theatre-makers in recent years might have been tempted to describe as moribund, it's explosive.

And allied to the statement from Peter Crowley, the incoming chairman, that the board is committed to transparency of governance, what's to complain about?

Sunday Independent

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