Irish director Caroline Byrne’s new show is a gender-swapped take on the Faust myth. She tells Rosemary Waugh about tackling ‘problematic female characters’, why she is captivated by the non-verbal world of a play, and working with Ruth Negga at the Young Vic later this year
Caroline Byrne could do without words. The London-based, Irish director is captivated by the possibilities of the visual, rather than the tricksy, “inauthentic” world of spoken or written dialogue.
“I’m really interested in the non-verbal world of the play,” she says. “So even if you don’t understand the language, you would understand through the semiotics and the composition what the whole thing means… Sometimes when I’m directing I’m like: ‘I wish there were no words in this; I wish it was just all visuals.’”
The director is currently working on Faustus: That Damned Woman, a new version of the Faust myth by Chris Bush, which opens at the Lyric Hammersmith in London in January before embarking on a UK tour. Then, in September, Byrne’s production of Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan, starring Ruth Negga, comes to London’s Young Vic.
In keeping with her previous work, which includes The Taming of the Shrew and All’s Well That Ends Well at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Katie Roche at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and Eclipsed at London’s Gate Theatre, Faustus has a very striking look and feel. It also makes some significant departures from the Christopher Marlowe version.
Johanna Faustus, played by Jodie McNee, is a young woman living in 1660s London. Her mother was hanged for witchcraft when she was a girl and she now works as an assistant in her father’s apothecary. She seeks out the devil to see if her mother really did sign her name in his book.
“She’s this incredibly gifted woman who can’t mobilise herself within a 1600s world,” Byrne says. In exchange for her soul, Lucifer gives her the gift of time travel – but only going forwards, never backwards. He also gives her something more prosaic: “Time, space and opportunity.”
Byrne sees her as quite a “congested” character thanks to the early trauma of her mother’s death and a variety of “psychological issues about whether she herself is inherently wicked and whether she’s responsible for the death of her mother”.
Switching Faustus’ gender performs an important function. “If the expectations of you are just to get married, to bear children, to be subservient; if there’s a role that’s already written for you and you have to fulfil that role, when you are suddenly given opportunity, that’s a massive re-wiring of your brain,” Byrne believes.
“In Marlowe, he’s already very successful. He has opportunity already and he’s been allowed to fulfil himself in terms of his academic possibilities and his great mind, so in a way he just wants more. But if you have nothing…”
What was your first professional theatre job?
Associate director on the Young People’s Shakespeare production of King Lear, directed by Tim Crouch for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That there’s going to be a gap for a couple of years between what you want it to be and what it is. And then slowly you’ll start to bridge the gap: don’t give up if it’s not immediate. You have to get better at bridging that gap and that’s not failure, it’s process.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Anne Bogart, for her philosophy and ensemble cultivation. And Thomas Ostermeier, for his interest in how theatre should allow all behaviour. I remember doing a workshop with him and he said: “Your unhappiness is a great source of creativity.” That really influenced me; now in my moments of despair I’m trying to capture what those things are so I can bring them to the work.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
I was interested in law, dentistry, veterinary medicine: the heavy hitters. But my life had a different turn in it and I pursued the arts.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I don’t go to press night. I take myself for a lovely glass of wine or a nice negroni.
This does not mean gender is the extent of what’s fascinating about Johanna Faustus. Byrne wants to “allow the fullness of the character to emerge as a person rather than just a woman”. Although the 17th-century society she lives in has oppressed Faustus, she “has the same ambition and the same desires as any man, so the scale of what she does and the scale of what she achieves is not gendered”.
Byrne continues: “The catalyst is: what would a woman do with this opportunity? But I don’t think the play is defining itself by its woman-ness or its feminism. I think it’s actually beyond it. So you’re going to see a pretty radical, bold, massive character out there who happens to be a woman. That’s where this play is really cutting-edge. She’s not defined by her woman-ness, she is just exploring what it means to be alive without the shackles of conforming to a societal role of what being a woman means.”
There’s an overlap between how Byrne is approaching the play’s lead role and how she views herself and her body of work.
A simplistic view of her career to date, including the gender-swapped Faustus and a radical reinterpretation of The Taming of the Shrew, would pin her as a female director making feminist theatre. But this limiting view doesn’t ring true for Byrne: “I’m very loath to say I’m a feminist director. I am a feminist, massively, but I’m also just a director.”
To date, she’s worked on plays that often have “really problematic female characters and I’m interested in trying to rewrite those narratives… but I don’t have a big agenda, I just want to make theatrical work where the characters are full”.
Byrne’s true interests lie in “behaviour and expressionism”, along with art, architecture and art history, a topic she was introduced to by her mother while growing up. This same emphasis on non-verbal expression perhaps explains her hesitancy around discussing her practice.
When we first meet she describes herself as a shy person who prefers communicating ideas via her onstage work, and she repeatedly apologises for what she perceives as rambling or unclear answers, despite being nothing but articulate, perceptive and hugely engaging.
I’m very loath to say I’m a feminist director. I am a feminist, massively, but I’m also just a director
Unsurprisingly, she works closely with her set designers. The world of Faustus, designed by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, is influenced by the work of Anselm Kiefer, the German artist whose current exhibition at London’s White Cube Bermondsey gallery “really speaks to this show, this kind of witchy world with the pagan meeting the scientific”.
She also mentions the visceral, bloody, raw paintings of Francis Bacon showing splayed animal carcasses, saying: “That’s the place I’m living in; that ripped, torn, expressive, braying, huge, emotional kind of world is what I love.” Hermann Nitsch, an Austrian artist famous for his use of blood, also gets a name check: “I talk a lot about body fluids in the rehearsal room,” she laughs.
Byrne, who started her career working as an assistant to Tim Crouch and Jonathan Munby at the Royal Shakespeare Company, runs a dynamic rehearsal space. “I start by cultivating relationships in space. So the first couple of sessions are all non-verbal.” The point of this is “to make people brave – they can’t stand there with a script in their hands, they have to look each other in the eye and be with each other”.
Props are minimal, if present at all. “I’m interested in stripping things back so we allow vulnerability… tables and things to hold on to are safety places, people gravitate towards safety and I’m not really interested in that.” In particular, sitting down with scripts is avoided. “I feel it’s quite a British thing to do this table work, but I’m not British, I’m Irish and I have my own way of working that’s very particular to what I need to see.”
The next group of actors she’ll work with includes the Oscar-nominated Negga, whom she approached after seeing her “wonderful” performance in Yaël Farber’s Hamlet at the Gate in Dublin, and learning that Portia Coughlan was one of the actor’s favourite plays.
Negga came to London for a first reading of it to Young Vic artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, essentially pitching it alongside Byrne. “It was an electric moment hearing the play be read by her,” Byrne says. “It’s a play that needs to be heard with the Irish voice because it’s written phonetically.”
She concludes with a deeply personal reason for doing what she does. “My father died when I was very young, when I was four,” she says. “I think part of my interest in creating theatre is bringing something to life because I dealt with loss at such a young age. I think that’s always been there, at the heart of it.”
Born: Kilkenny, Ireland
Training: MA in actor training, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama
• Eclipsed, Gate Theatre, London (2015)
• The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s Globe, London (2016)
• Katie Roche, Abbey Theatre, Dublin (2017)
• All’s Well That Ends Well, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London (2018)
• Spring Awakening, Young Vic, London (2018)
Agent: Lisa Richards Agency
Faustus: That Damned Woman, a co-production between Headlong and the Lyric Hammersmith in London, runs until February 22. Details: lyric.co.uk