Tuesday 24 October 2017

Theatre: The firecracker set to be Gate's new supremo

Girls and dolls: Camille O'Sullivan in Cartmell's 2007 production of Sweeney Todd at The Gate
Girls and dolls: Camille O'Sullivan in Cartmell's 2007 production of Sweeney Todd at The Gate
Selina Cartmell

Maggie Armstrong

'Did you hear the Gate has a new director?" "Oh yeah, what's his name?"

So the conversation goes. The next director of the Gate is Selina Cartmell, and she is not a lad. Shock.

Of course people are surprised that someone called Selina is taking over the Dublin institution. In its 88 years, the Gate has had three directors - co-founders Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards, and Michael Colgan. Their personalities cast a long shadow but one this firecracker artist will surely torch through.

Cartmell (right) is young, edgy and distinct. She has a cut-glass English accent, grew up in Hertfordshire and studied at Trinity College, where she found a home directing plays. With her company Siren Productions, she has been based in Dublin since 2003, one of the country's leading directors. There are too many awards for productions to bother mentioning.

Cartmell will work alongside Michael Colgan from January 1, and when he leaves on April 1, it will be sad. No other director could do the circus of meets and greets on a Gate opening night with such talent and still manage to get up in the morning and run the theatre. But stamina on the job, Cartmell will have lashings of.

Her plays are very fresh, very thrilling, and sometimes intoxicating. She brings out the best in her collaborators. It seems a pity her new job title doesn't have 'artistic' before it. Her biggest challenge, surely, will be handing the keys of the theatre over to other directors.

Here are a few of the memorable productions Cartmell has left behind her.

Sweeney Todd (2007)

Musical theatre at the Gate? It made for a delicious night out. The late Anita Reeves worked up turbo-laughs as Mrs Lovett, making victims into meat pies and Camille O'Sullivan was transformed into a beggar-whore. It was luscious, all wigs and corsets, and silly where it might have been bloody - I recall explosions of flour every time someone was killed off. This was an early break for Cartmell, who won the Gate an Irish Theatre Award. And the real proof of a good healthy show: Lisa Lambe and Simon Morgan, who played the lovers, really did fall in love, and now they are married.

King Lear (2013)

Cartmell's King Lear at the Abbey was large and lavish, frayed and violent. She created a giant's cast (with some frighteningly real animal costumes) and let the play run for more than three hours of fury. It was all very Shakespearean, though Cartmell, who loves a visual pun, made Goneril, played by Tina Kellegher (Sharon from The Snapper), pregnant. Owen Roe played Lear with a kind of perfection, while Hugh O'Conor made for a wise and impish Fool. With clamorous battle scenes and a rip-roaring storm where pieces of the set seemed to thrash around, people hadn't seen this scale of action on Abbey Street for years.

Punk Rock (2014)

Simon Stephens' play takes place firmly in a classroom, around tables and chairs. That must have been a nightmare for the hungry eyes of Cartmell, who does love a rich set. But Punk Rock showcased her skill with an ensemble. She cast some of the first batch of Lir Drama School graduates as the rich kids in the play, and they shone like new pennies. Stephens' writing shone the brightest and you forgot there was even a director behind it, as the drama went quickly from hilarious to ominous to desperately tragic. I caught a matinee in the Lyric in Belfast and after the play's brutal end, walked out of the theatre and back on the train without my wallet.

Rigoletto (2015)

This was Cartmell's first opera, with Opera Theatre Company, and she didn't approach the new form with anything like shyness. The libretto was rewritten by Cartmell's close collaborator Marina Carr, and the two women created an underworld of thugs and sex workers from Verdi's tale of seduction. An abiding memory is of soft yellow Duracell bunnies bouncing around the stage. What else has imprinted? A boxing ring and a portaloo, strippers in red bikinis, a mezzo-soprano dominatrix whipping the Duke, and lots of white powder going up opera singers' noses.

By the Bog of Cats (2015)

Marina Carr's Irish take on the Medea story was LOL funny yet wretchedly dark in Cartmell's hands at the Abbey. Tapping into some quarry in the Irish psyche, characters were dressed as if for a Garth Brooks tribute concert. From a bleak, snowy set, Cartmell brought out winning comedy from Marion O'Dwyer as mother-in-law from hell Mrs Kilbride, and Bríd Ní Neachtain as the spooky Catwoman. Those not prepared for the play's baffling tragedy were dealt a right blow. It was certainly one of those nights when you emerge white-faced, wondering what's the point of it all. Now that's what's called having a good time, isn't it? Cheers, Selina Cartmell.

stagestrong@gmail.com

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