Backwards and Forwards with Marina Carr

Marina CarrMarina Carr is one of Ireland’s most admired writers, known for her lyrical language, dark subject matters, mythological allusions, and incisive explorations of heredity, fate, legacy, and desire. Marina has developed Phaedra Backwards with McCarter over several years, and will be in residence at the theatre during the rehearsal process this fall. Erica Nagel, dramaturg for Phaedra Backwards, spoke with Marina by phone from her home in County Kerry, Ireland about the upcoming production.

Erica: Where did you find the initial inspiration for Phaedra Backwards?
Marina:  Honestly it was so long ago I can barely remember! It was last century wasn’t it? (Laughs) Emily spoke to me and said McCarter would like to commission me for a new piece. I’ve always loved the Phaedra story. At the time I’d been reading Racine’s Phaedra and different myths around the Phaedra story. And though I love Racine’s Phaedra I felt it only told one side of the story. I wanted to tell the back story of Phaedra’s family: her mother, Pasiphae; her father, Minos;  her brother, the Minotaur; her sister, Ariadne. I began to think about what that relationships might have been and how they lead to the death of Hippolytus in Racine’s Phaedra.

E: You’ve been working on the play off and on for about ten years now.  What kept you at it?
M: I was continually fascinated with the Minotaur. He’s a half-man half-bull, and I wanted to explore what it would be like to have someone like that in your family. I also find it very interesting that Phaedra married Theseus, who was with her sister’s lover first, and that she married the man who killed her brother. I stayed interested in what that all means and what that would do to a person.

E: How does Phaedra Backwards compare to the rest of your body of work?
M: I think it’s incredibly different. For one thing, I don’t think there’s anything Irish about it. I think it could take place anywhere – the cadence and the language might give it away but that’s about it. Also, I think in terms of playwriting structure and plot points it’s not a traditional play. It’s quite experimental, I think, in its approach.  It’s a very imagistic piece -- the use of film elements and the changes of time, and dealing with the supernatural and with hauntings… But I don’t really see it as a mythic piece – these people are very real. It’s taken from myth of course, but as [fourth Century Roman philosopher] Sallustius says about myth: “These things never happened but always are.” That would certainly be true for the people in this play.

E:  What made you want to you depart from your usual style for the play?
M: I just got bored with the” well-made play” – beginning, middle, and end, you know? We’re all kind of bored of it. It’s all shifting so fast now. I think our capacity to take in information has quickened in the past twenty, thirty years. We’ve changed with the advent of film. We grab onto things. We’re very tired of anyone who tries to hammer something home to us. It gets harder and harder to keep our own attention and certainly to keep anyone else’s attention.  I know that’s true when I go to the theatre. If I know what’s going to happen and the way it’s going to happen within the first 5 minutes, then that’s it, unless there’s another factor like an extraordinary performance or something.  I think it’s no longer the story you’re telling but how you’re telling it. There are a lot of great traditional well-made plays out there are, but that form just doesn’t do it for me right now.

E: What about title Phaedra Backwards? Does the “Backwards” have to do with the structure of the play?
M: It does, it does. Because the play starts at the end, and then goes back through to different end,  or sort of a similar end in another dimension. We’ve played around with the title for a while. It originally began as Phaedra Backwards, and then went to Phaedra and now back to Phaedra Backwards and I think that’s actually the right decision. Because it’s Phaedra’s story backwards and forwards – it’s her story, but it’s also all of them in it together.

E: If you had to use one sentence to complete the Phrase “Phaedra Backwards is the story of...”  what would you say?
M: Well, my first reaction is that if you can sum a play up in one sentence, it’s not going to be a very interesting play. (Laughs) Really it’s about… I think it’s about how to live and how to die. It’s about the big pains, the big passions, the big moments, what we were made on and what the price of that is. It’s about how our ability or inability to love is finally what defines us. All that’s in Phaedra Backwards.  And I think it’s about death. And it’s also about dealing with mystery. It’s about encountering things that are not comprehensible, and allowing them entry into your life.

E: Do you think American audiences are less comfortable with mystery and experimental work than Audiences in the U.K.?
M: I think the desire for mystery is there in American culture as well. There is openness to it.  Maybe the work that tends to have a lot of commercial success has everything laid out and neatly tied up. But I think that we’re after something completely different. The trick is to go for it proudly and courageously and not be trying to have it falling between two stones. That’s where a lot of plays fall down:  fingers in all the pies. It happens in productions and in writing. I think what we all need more of is courage. I do think the audiences are out there for it, there’s a huge appetite for this kind of stuff, and we have to trust the intelligence of the audience.

E: What makes McCarter the right theatre to bring Phaedra Backwards to life?
M: First of all, I think Emily [Mann] is a magnificent director. I think she is at the height of her powers right now. Of course she’s got a whole fantastic track record. Working with Emily at this time is absolutely thrilling, just watching her in rehearsal at the workshop in February, her command was very inspiring.  And her range of references is so wide, so she’s bringing all that to this play, as of course are
Mark [Bennett, composer], Rachel [Hauck, Scenic Designer], Anita [Yavich, Costume Designer] and all the designers. And the actors – especially Stephanie [Roth Haberle, who plays Phaedra] – what they gave in that process… It’s been a huge collaboration and will continue to be. Right now there’s all this energy going into the pot, and hopefully we’ll get the magic out.