Saturday 20 January 2018

New direction for much-loved theatres

Emer O’Kelly looks at how two of Ireland’s most famous theatres are in for big change

Graham McLaren (left) and Neil Murray prepare to take the helm at the Abbey Theatre
Graham McLaren (left) and Neil Murray prepare to take the helm at the Abbey Theatre
Selina Cartmell is taking over at the Gate Theatre. Photo: Kieran Harnett

The first work that I saw directed by Selina Cartmell was 12 years ago, when she collaborated with Operating Theatre for actor Olwen Fouere and composer Roger Doyle in the latter's Passades. It was a site-specific piece in an empty space in Dublin which traced the mentally and physically tormented search by a mother for her lost child, or possibly her lost childhood - and it was hauntingly memorable.

Cartmell has just been appointed director of the Gate Theatre in succession to Michael Colgan, and her career since 2004 would suggest that the theatre will take a very different direction under her leadership. For a start, she has demonstrated her dedication to the coming generation by directing numerous graduation pieces both at the Lir Academy in Dublin and at LAMDA in the UK.

Her own company, Siren Productions, has been responsible for gripping, frequently ground-breaking work, with Titus Andronicus in 2005 and Macbeth in 2008, as well as a new version of Medea in 2010. In all three, the Cartmell approach to a classic has been impish, but with re-imagination that never traduced the original, merely giving it some thoughtful new slant, frequently sexual, as making Lady Macbeth an ageing vamp holding in thrall a Macbeth young enough to be her son.

Equally at ease with modern work, she has directed Tom MacIntyre's Only an Apple at the Peacock; Marina Carr's By the Bog of Cats last year at the Abbey; Sweeney Todd and Festen at the Gate, and A Tender Thing, and The Making of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, both for her own company, and both of them that frequently ill-applied term "world class."

And Cartmell, who's from Cumbria in the UK, will take up her post at more or less the same time as the Abbey's new dual leadership of producer Neil Murray and director/designer Graham McLaren, who have been shadowing outgoing director Fiach Mac Conghail for a few months now. They come to Ireland from the National Theatre of Scotland where Murray was one of the founding co-directors (with Vicky Featherstone, who now directs the Royal Court and was frequently criticised at the NTS for being English.)

NTS was set up over a decade ago in a flush of nationalistic exultation after Scottish devolution, to be a reflection of national consciousness. That mirrors the founding principles of the Abbey in 1904. But whether it is theatrically sound remains arguable, since the purpose of theatre should be to make art rather than political statements. If the political statement precedes the art, it becomes polemic.

But the appointment statement by Murray and McLaren said they were committed to the purpose of national theatre "regardless of geographical remoteness or perceived social barriers." Whether that meant they were against middle-class writers and audiences isn't clear, but the geographical point was obvious from a duo whose default remit has been touring (very successfully): NTS does not have a building.

They did add, however, that they "believe in an international perspective that will take the Abbey Theatre's best work out of the country on a regular basis and bring exciting international artists to Ireland."

The next couple of years in Irish theatre will be interesting.

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