Marina Carr: 'I want to forget about the pandemic and all topical relevance'

Virginia Woolf's tale, To The Lighthouse, has been adapted for Cork Midsummer Festival. Just don't overdo the quest for Covid-era allegories, says the Irish playwright 
Marina Carr: 'I want to forget about the pandemic and all topical relevance'

Marina Carr has adapted To The Lighthouse for a streamed performance from the Everyman. Picture: Leon Farrell

Virginia Woolf’s modernist classic To The Lighthouse is a novel about grief, loss, the passing of time and disrupted plans, written in the aftermath of World War I and a global pandemic. It would not be hard, perhaps, to find resonances in our own current situation.

However, Marina Carr, who has adapted the novel for the stage, is having none of it.

“Everybody wants to equate everything to the pandemic. I just want to forget about the pandemic and all topical relevance, to be honest. You could spin it that way but honestly the pandemic has nothing to do with To The Lighthouse, except of course, they are trying to get to the lighthouse — it takes them ten years,” she says.

The world premiere of Carr’s adaptation, directed by Annabelle Comyn, is set to be a highlight of next month’s Cork Midsummer Festival; performed and filmed on the Everyman stage, it will be available to audiences online for a limited period. 

The story stretches from before the start of World War I to its aftermath and centres on the Ramsay family and their guests who are visiting their summer home in the Hebrides.

The stage adaptation has been in gestation for many years, says Carr, and she is delighted that it has eventually been brought to fruition.

“Annabelle and myself have been in conversation for years about this. Between the jigs and the reels, it has come down to now. It was a very big project to get into place, then the pandemic came and that knocked us all back. Now it is happening, which is fantastic,” she says.

The Dublin-based Carr grew up in Offaly and is one of Ireland’s most acclaimed playwrights. Her work, including the ‘Midlands’ trilogy of The Mai, Portia Coughlan and By the Bog of Cats, is produced and performed around the world. Her plays centre the female experience in a confined patriarchal society so it is not surprising that she has an enduring affinity with Woolf and her work.

“I have loved Virginia Woolf for a long time, her novels, her diaries, her essays, all her work down the years. She is just a magnificent writer. There is a wonderful line in To The Lighthouse where Charles Tansley says to Lily Briscoe, who is trying to paint her picture, that 'women can’t paint, women can’t write' and this infuriates her. This is what Woolf was dealing with in her lifetime.

 "She started her own printing press with her husband Leonard so they didn’t have to deal with all this nonsense. If you read her essays, they are full of the whole polemic surrounding how can one be an artist and be a woman, a room of one’s own and all of that… then her diaries are full of the limitations imposed upon her and how that affected her psychologically and shaped her writing and her existence.” 

When it came to transposing Woolf’s work to the stage, Carr was conscious of preserving her innovative prose.

“I have tried to be very faithful to Woolf’s language. It had to be adjusted here and there for the stage but I haven’t added a whole lot in. I have mainly been working off her beautiful, beautiful language, and shaping it for theatrical presentation.”

Marina Carr, centre, with the cast of To The Lighthouse: Nick Dunning, Derbhle Crotty, Aoife Duffin  and Colin Campbell. Picture: Leon Farrell
Marina Carr, centre, with the cast of To The Lighthouse: Nick Dunning, Derbhle Crotty, Aoife Duffin  and Colin Campbell. Picture: Leon Farrell

 Much of the novel is conveyed in a stream-of-conscious interior narrative which builds significant dramatic tension, says Carr.

“So much of the book is what people are thinking about other people. They get worked up, stressed out and have very harsh opinions on everyone else. Because it is such an interior piece as written, it is about transcribing that and finding a theatrical language for those very emotionally busy and wrought moments — because they are all internal, they happen in silence in the book. It is the character thinking and feeling very passionately about things. So to put that on stage, it does make for very high-stakes drama.” 

Whatever about its relevance in the midst of a pandemic, Carr says Woolf’s work, and her deep understanding of the human condition, is timeless and universal.

“Her empathy and her understanding of what is sometimes a tortured existence for people, the conflicts that are in us all, whether we acknowledge them, she goes to the heart of that. She does it with such detail, compassion and understanding of each point of view.”

 With live theatrical performances in front of an audience still on hiatus, a new form of streamed experience has emerged, a blend of stage and film offering access beyond bricks and mortar. It is a morphing of the medium that excites Carr, and mirrors Woolf’s own artistic experimentation.

“There is something about it that is aligning because Virginia Woolf herself was such a voyager in terms of her writing. There was a hundred writers in her. The minute she cracked a form, she wanted to crack another one. That is one of the beautiful things about the book and trying to transpose it. At the back of all of this is an experimentation of form and finding ways to get theatre to audiences in this time. You have loads of layers going on and I think it can only add to it.

 "I know Annabelle’s approach has been very fluid and really original. It is not going to be a straight film of a rehearsed play, there will be lots of innovations around film. A lot of theatre people have been forced to invent this kind of hybrid form. It is in its infancy but it’s exciting and let’s see what comes out of it. It is a big adventure.”

 While Carr has previously lamented the lack of female voices in theatre, she welcomes recent advances, with initiatives such as Waking the Feminists pushing for greater female representation.

“We have got some very strong leadership coming through as well now which helps enormously — Selina Cartmell [The Gate] and Catriona McLaughlin’s recent appointment at the Abbey. We have always had Garry Hynes [Druid], then you have people like Annabelle, Lynne Parker [Rough Magic]…if you think about the whole theatrical landscape, it has shifted dramatically in the last couple of years. 

"These are all brilliant women working at the height of their powers. That is really heartening to be around and to have these people engage with your work. I think that can only be a good thing. But as they say, ‘beware armies in retreat’. That said, I would be hopeful that there would be more coming down the line and that we would begin to think about parity.”

 While Carr initially enjoyed the respite from work pressures due to lockdown, she is looking forward to being back in the theatrical fray, not that she could have foreseen needing a Covid test to do so.

“I had taken it all for granted — 2020 was meant to be a really busy year for me. It went from four or five productions scheduled to nothing. I’m looking forward to getting into the rehearsal room, it has been a long time. There are expectations of things opening up, conversations are starting again, but for a long time I was left to my own devices and I kind of loved it, walking up the mountain with the dog and just talking to myself, which I think is very necessary as well. Sometimes maybe we just need to stop for a while and think about things that we normally wouldn’t think about.” 

  • Hatch Theatre, the Everyman Theatre in Cork, and Pavilion Theatre in  Dun Laoghaire, present a new adaptation by Marina Carr of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse - broadcasts from the Everyman Theatre stage at Cork Midsummer Festival, June 25 – 27
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