Lucy Caldwell

The acclaimed playwright discusses her new play Carnival, set to premiere at this year's Belfast Festival at Queen's

So Lucy, what is Carnival about?
It’s about a travelling gypsy circus that comes to town, it’s about the seedy, seamy side of carnival life, the danger and desperation behind the glamour. It’s about divided loyalties and desperate choices, about bitter memories and betrayal and the longing for a better life. It’s about the clash between the old and the new, between us and them, between the right thing and the only thing to do. It’s got aerial artists, flamenco dancers, live Roma musicians and girls that swim in tanks of piranhas. Roll up and see for yourself!

The play also deals with quite difficult and disturbing subject matter. Where did the story come from? Why were you drawn to it? 
I made up the story. I made up the world, I made up the characters, I made up all of it. True, the ‘spark’ of the plot was reading a report in the Times about two girls who were rescued from an Italian ‘circus of horrors’ where they were made to do terrible things, like swimming in tanks of piranhas and doing acts with tarantulas and snakes. But by the time I read that, I’d been imagining up and sketching out the world of my play for months. 

I’ve always been fascinated by circuses and the travelling life, ever since I read Rumer Godden’s fantastic book The Diddakoi as a child, and found out that my great-uncle ran away to join a travelling fairground when he was barely thirteen. But I wanted to write about that world without sentimentalising it. Paula (McFetridge, artistic director of Kabosh Theatre Company and director of Carnival) and I had been having long conversations about abusive relationships and being trapped, and why someone might stay in a harmful or dangerous situation. 

I’ve also been conscious for a while about the increasing, insidious, and often invisible persecution of traveller families. Like the ghettoisation that’s happening in Berlusconi’s Italy – families being rounded up, hounded out, their fingerprints taken – it’s very sinister and very disturbing. Reading that report was just a ‘eureka’ moment where everything suddenly came together.

How did you research a play like Carnival?
Well, as I say, this play draws on subjects and themes that I’ve been interested in for years. But while I was waiting for the shape of my story to emerge, I did a lot of reading. Books of Romani myth and folklore, reports on the Balkan conflict and its aftermath, internet forums where contemporary Roma exchange news and stories. I watched documentaries, I listened to music, I investigated shelters for victims of domestic violence. 

When I start working on a play, I always have a sort of mental mood-board, things as diverse as Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover and biographies of PT Barnum were on it. I also did a lot of thinking about the fact that, for so long, the ‘grand narrative’ in Ireland has been one of emigration, and suddenly, over the last decade, we suddenly have so many immigrants coming here in search of a better life. That’s a huge, seismic shift, something that absolutely fascinates me.

Is this the first time you've premiered a new work in Belfast?
Although Carnival is my first full-length play to premiere in Belfast, it's not my first premiere here. Last autumn my short play Toner's Bog, written for Big Telly Company, premiered in the North and then went on a six-week tour of Ireland. I also came back to take part in Ireland’s first 24-hour play festival, held at the Lyric last Hallowe’en, and I wrote and recorded my first radio play, Girl From Mars in Belfast, with an almost entirely local cast and producer. 

My first full-length play, Leaves, was a co-production between Druid Theatre Company and the Royal Court. It premiered in Galway before transferring to London. It has been very galling for me that Leaves, which is set in Belfast and is about Belfast, has won 3 major (and international) awards and been short-listed for two more but is yet to be produced on a Belfast stage. 

The playwright Abbie Spallen recently went through a similar thing: her Pumpgirl, an absolute cracker of a play, took two years and a 3,000 mile round trip before it finally came back to Belfast. As a writer, nothing compares to seeing your work produced in the place it came from and belongs to. Although I am based in London, I very much consider myself an Irish, and a Belfast, writer. But if I’d waited for a Belfast premiere of Leaves, perhaps I’d still be waiting.

Why are you returning to Belfast for this year’s festival?
You go where the most exciting, challenging and stimulating opportunities are. And it was the Spiegeltent that clinched it. I loved the idea of writing a play specifically for such a dramatic, evocative, unusual setting, and when Paula and I started talking about we could do, the possibility of using circus performers, live musicians and dancers to create a fast-paced, flamboyant, spectacle of a show was exhilarating.

If you could have written any play in history, what would it be and why?
Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters. It’s my favourite play ever. Brian Friel’s Faith Healer comes a close second. Or one of Shakespeare’s late romances, The Winter's Tale, perhaps. Or Caryl Churchill’s Far Away… This is a dangerous game to play because after a certain point inspiration and admiration tips into despondence!

What Irish cultural figure do you most admire and why?
We have so very, very many. Poets, musicians, storytellers, playwrights… Impossible to choose. I do love the work of Marina Carr, though. Her world and vision are inimitable, utterly unique, and her plays have the grandeur and desperation of Greek tragedy.

What cultural event are you most looking forward to in the coming months?
Tom Stoppard’s version of Chekhov’s Ivanov at the Donmar. Without a doubt. Our tickets aren’t for another month and a half but I’m counting the days. In the meantime, I just received an invitation to the opening of an exhibition of the work of Gerda Taro and the war photographer Robert Capa, which looks very thought-provoking. 

Check out Culture Live! events listings for more information on Lucy Caldwell's Carnival which runs in the Spiegeltent from October 23 to November 1. 

Peter Geoghegan