In The Red Shoes at Dublin’s Gate theatre, a teenage girl has an overwhelming desire to break free of convention. The theme encapsulates a buoyant new spirit not just at the Gate, under its recently appointed artistic director Selina Cartmell, but across Ireland’s stages. This is the effect of the grassroots campaign #WakingTheFeminists, formed in protest against the male-dominated lineup at the Abbey in Dublin for its 2016 centenary programme. The campaign has mobilised women in the arts, the media and beyond to publicly question and expose the mechanisms by which they have been excluded and marginalised.
Cartmell, who took over in April, is the first woman at the helm of the Gate in its 90-year history. She directs The Red Shoes with characteristic attention to visual tableaux and has assembled a first-rate, predominantly female artistic team including set and costume designer Monica Frawley and choreographer Liz Roche. Nancy Harris’s gently satirical version of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale transposes it to contemporary middle-class Ireland, where the force that constrains the passionate, dance-loving orphan Karen (Stephanie Dufresne) is not religious puritanism but crass materialism. With dance sequences, songs, a live musical score and a gothic aesthetic, this sometimes unwieldy ensemble production leans heavily on the symbolism of the magical shoes as they stir up female desires – creative and sexual – that must be repressed.
Cartmell’s inaugural 2017-18 season explores the many guises of “the outsider”, in seven productions that feature female playwrights, directors and designers prominently. So far, the bracing staging of Nina Raine’s Tribes by the young Irish director Oonagh Murphy during Dublin theatre festival in 2017, stands out. The first half of 2018 will see Camille O’Sullivan in The Rape of Lucrece, originally produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and a production of Sondheim’s Assassins, directed by Cartmell herself.
“I want to ensure that Irish audiences get to see work by international playwrights such as Nina Raine and Annie Baker, who are acclaimed in London and New York, but less well-known in Dublin,” says Cartmell. “While the Gate’s commitment is to the international classical canon, I want to reimagine that – to reframe the classics by bringing in great female directors, playwrights and actors.”
An award-winning director who established her own company, Siren Productions, in Dublin in 2004, Cartmell is one of very few female directors to have been given opportunities to work at the Gate by its previous artistic director, Michael Colgan. In his 33 years in the position, he championed the work of Pinter, Beckett and Friel in award-winning productions that toured internationally, and enjoyed longstanding collaborations with leading actors such as Michael Gambon and Ralph Fiennes. But the high regard in which Colgan was held artistically has been overshadowed in recent months by allegations of bullying and harassment. These come from a number of former female Gate staff, following the the international wave of #MeToo statements from women in the entertainment industry, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein accusations. Colgan has apologised for “misjudged behaviour” but denies having committed any crimes. An investigation is under way at the Gate.
The discussion about how to address issues of discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying in the arts has emerged from an 18-month period of intense debate about the representation of women in Irish theatre, especially at the Gate and the Abbey, Ireland’s national theatre.
“It feels seismic,” Cartmell says. “This is a really important moment. When I was putting my first annual season together a few months ago, I had a sense of responsibility, and that’s where the idea of the ‘outsider’ theme came from. I want to ensure that those voices that have not been heard at the Gate before – the women writers and directors – are given a platform. I want to empower them.”
A research study on gender balance in Irish theatre, published last year by Waking the Feminists, the Irish Theatre Institute and NUI Galway, gave concrete, quantitative evidence to something that had previously been muttered about in private and anecdotally. The report analysed the 10 largest publicly funded theatres, theatre companies and festivals in Ireland between 2006 and 2013, and found that the two largest and best-funded theatres, the Gate and the Abbey, had the lowest female representation among playwrights and directors.
At the Abbey, incoming co-directors Graham McLaren and Neil Murray, arriving from the National Theatre of Scotland in late 2016, began to take the temperature of Irish theatre at a time of upheaval, anger and generational change. A leading Waking the Feminists spokeswoman, Sarah Durcan, was appointed to the theatre’s board and the Abbey went on to announce eight “guiding principles on gender equality”.
McLaren and Murray’s programme for 2018 reflects a commitment to women, as artistic collaborators from numerous independent theatre companies such as Landmark, Anu Productions, Fishamble and Gare St Lazare, as well as playwrights, directors, designers and choreographers directly commissioned by the Abbey, such as Marina Carr and Gina Moxley. Two new female producers have joined the creative team. A number of new plays to be staged in the coming months explore the subject of sexual consent, including Asking for It by Louise O’Neil (a co-production between Landmark and the Everyman theatre, based on her novel of the same title), and Rathmines Road by Deirdre Kinahan. In February, they will produce Porcelain, a debut play by the Irish writer, Margaret Perry, and a new version of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs by Deirdre Kinahan, with an all-female cast of 15.
The immediate impact of #WakingTheFeminists was to prompt public statements from Ireland’s leading theatre organisations about their commitment to gender balance, and a government-led, industry-wide consultation on the issue. While these achievements are impressive, at a deeper level there is something even more significant: a new awareness, impossible to unlearn, of how power is exercised on stage and off. It looks as if those glittering red dance shoes will never be stilled.
The Red Shoes is at the Gate theatre, Dublin, until 27 January. Box office: +3531 8744045. Porcelain is at the Abbey theatre, Dublin, from 20 February to 10 March. Box office: +3531 8797226.