A fascination with the dark side of theatre has marked the productions of former Rolex protégée Selina Cartmell as she has directed play after play, to great acclaim. Recently, she has expanded her repertoire to opera, an experience that owes much to her former mentor, Julie Taymor, who remains both a close friend and an inspiration to the young British director.
“I love death and I can easily kill children and daughters,” says director Selina Cartmell. “On stage, that is. Death and violence seems to hold a bit attraction for some reason.”
She laughs as she speaks, a sunny contrast to the sentiments. But throughout her career, the British director has been drawn to darkness, whether it is Shakespearean in a devastating Titus Andronicus which turned blood-thirsty tragedy into a family drama or Jacobean in John Ford’s The Broken Heart, a story of violent retribution. Throw in Beckett, Sweeney Todd and Festen for good measure and you have a CV that positively reeks of the macabre. “But it has to have some purpose,” the 39 year-old adds. “I can’t do it for the sake of it.”
In 2006-2007, when Cartmell was mentored in the Rolex Arts Initiative by the great American director, Julie Taymor, she had already made her mark as a rising talent to watch. By 2012, the Irish Times could call her “easily the most visionary director working in Ireland today” on the basis of her productions for her own company Siren Productions and work at the Abbey and the Gate, two of Dublin’s leading theatres.
But even by Cartmell’s own high standards, 2015 has proved to be an exceptional year. It began in February with the Irish Times Theatre award for best director (and best production) for her staging of Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. The prize – her third best director nod – was a particular pleasure because the production had come together at the last minute when another project fell through.
Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast ©Steffan Hill Photography/Lyric Theatre Belfast
“I really loved the play and if I’m really attracted to the play and to the story, that’s a big part of it for me,” Cartmell explains. She recruited a young cast, straight out of drama school, which gave “a blast of energy,” but the project was still a risk. “I didn’t know the audience, didn’t know how it was going to go down. I felt that the prize was a real tribute to that amazing company. It said a huge amount about them which made me feel very happy.”
That instinct for the adventurous choice was even more evident in her next project – a new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto
for the touring Opera Theatre Company. It was Cartmell’s first attempt at opera, but that didn’t inhibit her: her vision of Verdi’s dark tale shifted the action from a 16th century court to a boxing gym in 1980s Ireland, complete with scantily clad masseuses and a dingy portaloo. The original idea for this setting in the criminal underworld came from a boarded up building Cartmell had seen on her journeys to Dublin airport. “I used to wonder what went on inside it – and that was the first bolt of inspiration. Your imagination takes over.”
Her confidence in the project arose partly from her year as a protégée, which involved shadowing Julie Taymor as she directed Elliot Goldenthal’s new opera Grendel. “It took away some of the mystique,” says Cartmell. “Before, I felt that if you are going to direct opera, you’ve got to know all about the music, and understand what an A flat is. What I discovered watching Julie work is that you don’t need that, as long as you have a clear vision of what you want to say.” Cartmell is now smitten. “'I'm a big fan of opera as the music plugs you into the heart of the storyand it speaksto you on such a deepemotional level.”
The libretto for her radical Rigoletto was written with Irish playwright Marina Carr, and the two women are working together once more on a revival of By the Bog of Cats, Carr’s reimagining of Medea, which opens at the Abbey Theatre on 14 August, bringing more darkness and more dead children. “It’s primal yet it speaks brilliantly to a contemporary audience,” Cartmell explains. “Marina asks you to be fearless and I think that motivates any choice I make about getting involved in a production. It’s because it terrifies me that I want to do it.”
Verdi’s Rigoletto directed by Selina Cartmell for the touring Opera Theatre Company (2015) ©Ros Kavanagh/Opera Theatre Company. Her vision of Verdi’s dark tale shifted the action from a 16th-century court to a boxing gym in 1980s Ireland
This attraction to the brave and bold extends to the work Cartmell loves watching as well. This year she has been particularly impressed by Pina Bausch’s elemental dance, 1980, which she saw at Sadler’s Wells and Ivo Von Hove’s radical A View From a Bridge at the Young Vic. “Both were incredible experiences and shifted me to look at my work and the world in a different way.”
After many years based in Ireland, Cartmell, who was born in Cumbria, England, has now moved back to London. “I wanted a new challenge and a new environment. And I think that as a director you can be based anywhere.” Ironically, it is Ireland to which she has been travelling. After By the Bog of Cats she goes straight into rehearsals for the Irish premiere of Grounded, by playwright George Brant, which will open on the Tiger Dublin Fringe on 5 September.
Taymor has just directed the same play – about a pregnant fighter pilot who now operates drones – and she pointed her former protégée in its direction. “It’s a cracking piece of writing and she [Taymor] was raving about it when we met earlier this year in London,” says Cartmell. “We go to see a lot of theatre together and it’s lovely. As time goes on, we get to know each other more and more. She is just a fund of extraordinary inspiration, the way she keeps going, moving on, straddling different mediums.”
You wouldn’t bet against Cartmell sustaining just the same balance in the years to come.