If the heroines of world drama were hauled up in front of the headteacher for bad behaviour, Marina Carr’s characters would take up a sizeable part of the bench. There’s Hester Swane in By the Bog of Cats (a reworking of the Medea story), who destroys her home and her children; there’s the raging central character in her early work The Mai; there’s the grief-sodden, self-destructive Portia Coughlan in the play of the same name, who spends her days knocking back brandy and sleeping her way round the town. (That play, rather surprisingly, was written by Carr to celebrate the centenary of Dublin’s National Maternity Hospital.)
“I know. They’re a bunch of wagons,” she says, laughing, when I assemble this line-up in front of her. “Wagon”, she explains, is derogatory Irish slang for a difficult or contrary woman. Carr, one of Ireland’s leading playwrights, adds that she is drawn to female characters in extremis: women who have reached the end of their tether and snap.
“Very often it’s out of desperation,” she says. “Going back to my grandam’s and even my mother’s generation, everybody was always telling them what to do and nobody would let them do what they needed to do. They were just boxed out of existence. You can only do that for so long. There comes a point of explosion. The women I write have been with their backs against the wall and now it’s time to articulate what’s really going down. And that upsets people.”
To Carr’s list of tearaway women must now be added the bride in Blood Wedding, who disappears from her own wedding reception to run away with her ex — a move that certainly upsets people. Carr has just adapted Federico García Lorca’s tragedy for a staging by Yaël Farber at London’s Young Vic Theatre (where, three years ago, Billie Piper gave a shattering performance in Yerma, another Lorca classic).
The Spanish poet and playwright wrote the drama as one of his “trilogy of the Spanish earth” plays in 1932, depicting an oppressive rural society and a visceral feud between two families. The bride, trapped in the middle, finally rebels, precipitating a blood-soaked ending. It’s a raw, desolate piece, but Carr has found, as in all her plays, a vein of dark comedy.
“It’s a tragedy,” she says. “But it has moments of incredible beauty and I do think there’s a lot of humour in there as well. “It’s very experimental,” she adds. “It’s a mythical piece; it’s epic. It has a formality to it that a lot of the Greeks have. You know when you read Euripides or Sophocles — it has those very huge broad strokes and it’s elemental. That attracted me.”
It is also, she says, a piece “grounded in Andalucía and the village [Lorca] came out of”. That combination of mythic simplicity and earthiness can be hard to access for a contemporary, urban audience, however. And the concept of duende, the mysterious, irrational force that, for Lorca, “climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet” and pours out in art, calls for an uninhibited acting style antithetical to British reserve. Carr has sought to release the piece’s primal energy by setting her version in rural Ireland, drawing on the works of Irish writers such as JM Synge.
“When I was researching Lorca’s life, one thing I noticed was the jigsaw of influences on him,” she explains. “He was a massive reader and he came across Synge as a very young man. At age 19 he had read Riders to the Sea. There is this huge point of meeting between the way Synge used hibernal English and Lorca used Spanish and these plays about people who live on the land in remote places. That gave me a bit of confidence in tackling it.”
Lorca wrote Blood Wedding just a few years before the Spanish civil war broke out and he himself was brutally murdered by fascist forces. His play seems to foreshadow the violence that would tear through his country and his own terrible end. Carr suggests that the new setting might also help to release that wider significance afresh and speak to a contemporary audience all too familiar with rancorous divisions.
“If you look at Irish history, we had a war a decade and a half before the Spaniards,” she says. “The idea of a nation turning on itself — which is what civil war is — of brother turning against brother, I think that’s what Lorca is tapping into. It’s tribe against tribe; it’s your blood versus my blood; it’s I believe this, you believe that . . . you can take that to the maximum, to any society or any country where stuff is building up and where there is unrest.”
The runaway bride is not the only unruly woman set to stir things up over the coming months. Portia Coughlan returns in 2020, also at the Young Vic, with Ruth Negga in the central role. Carr is under commission for a new play for the Royal Court. Meanwhile Hecuba, her reworking of Euripides’ drama about the Trojan queen, is about to open at the Dublin Theatre Festival. Carr has previously said that she felt Hecuba had got a “bad press”.
“What if she wasn’t the witch who murdered two little boys and blinded Polymester?” she asks. “Let’s talk about what was done to her — what’s it like to have all your children slaughtered in front of your eyes? There are many, many narratives and for so long we have just heard the one.”
Several of Carr’s plays go back to Greek tragedy. The women in Sophocles and Euripides are “fantastic”, she says, “but they suffer for that taste of freedom and power.” For Carr, it’s important to remember that these ancient dramas are often one version of an even older story and that they bear retelling and refocusing.
“They’re the blueprint of who we are. They deal with powerful, powerful emotions and questions. And we’re still living them out today. I go back to the myths as much as I do the three big Greek tragedians, because they were drawing on myths. When Euripides wrote down Hecuba, that story was from 1200BC and he’s writing in 500BC or thereabouts. So it’s already an ancient myth.
“And they’re chronicles: there’s not much psychology. It’s ‘this happened, this happened, this happened, this happened’ . . . So, as a playwright coming to any of these myths or plays, you have to try and figure out ‘What is the meeting point between that ancient myth and what I want to say?’ It’s that idea of remoteness and going back to something to understand ourselves. I think that’s their power.”
For all the wild darkness in her work, Carr herself is a mild, softly spoken 54-year-old. She grew up in a literary household: her mother a teacher and a poet, her father a writer. The dramatic bug bit early: she and her siblings would stage their own plays in the garden shed. Even they, she recalls laughing, were blood-curdling affairs.
“There were vats of boiling oil, violence . . . there was always a girl on a swing as well who had nylons over her face — that’s my memory of it. The baddies usually came to a sticky end. Sometimes they would apologise, but we would really give them hell before we forgave them. Blood Wedding is a comedy compared with what we got up to!”
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