Society is becoming increasingly strange, even terrifying. Tyring to live is difficult, says playwright Marina Carr, trying to live well is the challenge for everyone, that reaching after things that are not immediably understandable.
Outside it is officially spring but the weather has apprently deided that winer is far more interesting. Carr, the most consistently original voice in Irish theatre, hold a paperback in her hand, Lovers and Strangers, by the Israeli writer David Grossmann, and asks for an opinion on his work. I never read him, but I knew Iwanted to. Pleased that she haed chosen well, she smiles the smile of triump. Her insticnt serves her as well in her reading as it does in her writing.
QWith two new plays about to open, Marble at the Abbey Theatre and her second childrens play The Giant Blue Hand, at the Ark, Carr, 44 last November, is, as ever, far more interested in discussing works by other writers. As usual she has several projects on hand and has just completed a play called Phaedra, not a version of the classic for the McCarter Theatre at Princeton where she taught last year as the Class of 1932 Fellow - its an awkward title - in the department of theatre and dance run by poet Paul Muldoon.
Currently working on the penultimate draft of her play Chekhov for the Abbey, Carr admits to having developed a changing relationship with the Russian master.
I have a love-hate thing about him. I had begun to think he was limited, and then I re-read, The Buck Monk and I asked myself What could I have been thinking of? I am the limited one. Hes so hard to pin down, and then thers the ongoing public canonistation of him. Thats part of my frustration.
Shakespeare and Yeats remain constant presences for her. Carr, whose artistic vision echoes elements of Synge and Tom Murphy, has a special affection for Riders to the Sea: I think thats Synges great play.
Living in Kerry with her husband and four children, ranging in aged 10 to two, she has been commuting to Dublin to sit in on the rehearsals of both plays. It is fascinating to see how they take shape, to see a thing grow, to watch as the actors reach for the rhythms. While a play is never really finished until it is per formed, I treasure the published text as much as the first performance, she says.
Her plays read as compelling narratives, probably because her characters are so vividly drawn. Ive read more plays than Ive seen and while Im not putting the reading of the play forward above the production, I do think that there is something missing, in a culture that no longer reads plays.
She must be nervous, facing two openings within days of each other? Not at all, she says. Carr, too candid for either self dramatisation or public angst, is lively, good-humoured, perceptive, and fun to be with. Her intensity is contained in her emotionally charged plays, the central trio of which is The Mai (1994), Portia Coughlan (1996) and By the Bog of Cats (1998).
Each is set in her native midlands and, making spectacular use of the distinctive local accent, they earned immediate acceptance into the national literary canon - all before Carr had reached her mid-30s..
On Rafterys Hill opened in 2000 and the Druid Theatre production travelled to the US.
The minefield called family dominates her work. It is a subject to which the has brought energy and insight; sudden humour as well as savage realism. She has explored many taboo subjects; incest, murder and revenge - the violence, although often graphic, succeeds in emerging as quasi-metaphysical. Carr is exploring the mind and memory. I dont know what makes a play work, I think thats a hard one, but I do know when a play doesnt work. You know when you are out of tune, when you are forcing it and the writers hand is all over it. I do a lot of drafts
Theatre, she believes, is people, space, time and talk. It also takes immense precision and a sophisticated grasp of simplicity, qualities she has mastered.
Marble, which opens at the Abbey on February 17th, is, for Carr, different, while remaining true to her familiar territory: relationships. Set in a city in the present, the four characters consist of two couples inahbiting a set made of black and white marble.
They have everything materially, yet have nothing; they want more yet are terrified, she says. The quick-fire opening scene between two men, long-time friends, demonstrating her flair for convincing dialogue, written in the kind of shorthand possible only between people who know each other far too well to engage in small talk.
As in The Cordelia Drama, which premiered in London last December in a Royal Shakespeare production, the language of Marble is less literary, more neutral; she has again opted for an urban register and more conventional speech with less of her trademark strangemess and flashes of the surreal and supernatural.
There are no obvious ghosts or, in the case of The Cordelia Dream, is there? These plays, which are set in the present could take place anywhere and yet possess a chilling contemporary relevance. While Irish audiences have yet to see the terse two-hander, The Cordelia Dream was comprehensively mauled by the British critics. How does she feel about such a negative reception?
Not great as you can imagine, they really hated it, she laughs, but Ive had bad reviews before here, there and everywhere ... no one wants them, the bad reviews, I think the critics were wrong, I have to say that in order to be able to go on ... but I do think that they did miss the point of it.
She is not defensive, her reaction is honest. In fact, her defence of the play is not only witty, it is also philosophical and logical. Carr is a deliberate, lucid thinker. She studied English and philosophy at University College Dublin, where she quickly discovered she was a playwright not an actor. Literature informs her art and her thought, her conversation flows with literary references. The study of philosophy opened further doors. Carr thinks on several levels at once. Her imaginative energy is well served by her practical reasoning.
She imagines, but she also questions. Of the visual arts and music; which at times feature in her work, she claims no special expertise but I know what I like. Of The Cordelia Dream, she says: Its my response to King Lear, a play I love and one which I re-read about twice every year, the same as I do with Hamlet. There is a huge amount going on in King Lear, and I decided to concentrate on the four howls and the five nevers in Act V. Ive always considered Cordelia, to be confrontational; here is Lear, facing his big day, about to divide his kingdom and she is looking for a fight, she refuses to play the game, to do the expected party piece in public.
Man in The Cordelia Dream is an elderly composer who was also a concert pianist. Woman, the other character, his daughter, is also a composer. It is about artistic rivalry and the search for redemption, she says. There is also, in common with much of her work, a prevailing ambivalence.
This ambivalence informs Marble. One of the two wives, Catherine, is facing a crisis of decision, of choice. She needs to escape. Incapable of engaging with her husband, she can no longer respond to her children, and seeks a new life through an elaborate dream existence. Women isolated and targeted within society continue to intrigue Carr: Despite all the feminist rhetoric the situation hasnt really changed. The best modus operandi is to accept you are perceived in this century as a second-class citizen and then you can navigate from there.
In Marble, Catherines despair is far more abstract than that experienced by Portia Coughlan or the self-destructive Hester Swane in By the Bog of Cats. Marble takes this despair out of the physical world and locates it in the subconscious. Its about mortality and the antics people get up to when they cant face aging and the inevitable, Carr decides, that moment when you realise that certain things are no longer possible and, in the fight of this discovery, how to live from here on in.
The other wife, Anne, has her own formula for survival: I just dont expect anything. I live by ritual, repetition. This old I machine thrives on cappuchinos and emptying the dishwasher and polishing my white marble tiles in hall. Im in love with those tiles ...
Meanwhile, their respective husbands attempt to sustain a balance between the possible and the probable. Its about love and death and time, reflects Carr. Ultimately this provocative, unsettling and often blackly funny play offers yet another variation on one of her major themes: exasperation. No one knows what happens because Carr has given her play all the uncertainty of life.
A few days before Marble opens, The Giant Blue Hand premieres at the Ark on February 10th. I wanted to write a play. for children and I asked mine what I should write, about. Her two boys had an immediate plan. William, who was seven and Daniel, who was only five years old at the time, and seems to have inherited his mothers precision, quickly devised a concept. They told me to write, about a giant blue hand, so I did.
The set, designed by Monica Frawley, is a cross between a lighthouse and a heltetskelter. In it, the Time family,ather, mother and two children, set off on an outing that becomes a serious life and death struggle.
The giant blue hand proves a dastardly. adversary but assistance comes in the form of Queen Dalia whose personal history has long ago been affected by the giant blue hand. A moral code underlines the action. Carr points out that children are discerning and demanding critics with an earthy sense of humour, hence Aunt Farticus Fume and her assortment of smelly underpants.