As his latest play premieres at the Tricycle theatre, the Irish dramatist talks to Matthew Amer about inspiration, childhood and constant learning.
“I was in a small house in Donegal where Garbo came to have dinner. The woman that was showing us around, she said that Garbo had eaten her dinners there and if only these walls could talk… I thought to myself ‘I think they’ve just started’.”
Irish playwright Frank McGuinness starts the process of writing each new play with just an image and a title. A simple, off-the-cuff remark from a local tour guide and the plain assertion that Greta Garbo Came To Donegal was all he needed to set him on the path to his latest play, which opened at the Tricycle theatre this week.
Set in 1967, it tells a tale inspired by the visit the famous Swedish film star made to Donegal and takes place at a time that particularly intrigued the writer: “I was in my teens then, just before the North exploded. I think that’s a really interesting time to watch, when a revolution is about to happen, to see what are the signs of the big changes coming, how does that affect the lives of the people who are about to have their whole culture transformed. You don’t know what it is; nobody in the 60s really knew what the hell was going to be unleashed in 1969, we really didn’t, and we certainly didn’t know how long it was going to last. We were walking into a period of great change without really knowing what was going to happen. That’s not ignorance and it’s not innocence, it’s just a kind of strange open state.”
Those changes were not just solely surrounding ‘The Troubles’, which have dominated so many plays about late 20th century Ireland. McGuinness was interested in the sexual revolution that was also coming but is so often forgotten. Religion, he says, was not an all-dominating force: “It didn’t play a gigantic part in the lives of a lot of people. That, I think, will be a shock to the system for some that absolutely associate Ireland with either the Catholic side or the Protestant side. I really feel that that conflict has exhausted itself. It exhausted itself a long time ago.”
“Nobody in the 60s really knew what the hell was going to be unleashed in 1969”
It would be too easy to suggest that a play set in McGuinness’s home town of Buncrana, during his formative teenage years, might be closer to his heart than other pieces. But, he assures me, this is not the case. “I went out of my way to make the families and the couples not like my own. It’s more fun to do that,” he states in his lilting, jovial Irish brogue. “I find autobiography very boring; certainly my life.” Yet from the outside, McGuinness’s life, certainly his youth, is one worth writing about.
Born in 1953 and raised in Donegal, McGuinness was the eldest of three siblings in a working class family. But he was different to many of the other local children, in both sexuality and ambition.
“If you grew up gay in Donegal in the 1960s, a shrinking violet you were not,” he laughs. “The slightly strange thing about growing up gay was I didn’t have a problem with it; other people had a problem with it. That makes a radical difference to the way you view yourself. If you don’t have a problem with it, no matter how tough the opposition is, eventually you will overcome them.”
Overcome them he did, as he did his economic background which, at the time, made a move into higher education extremely unlikely. Support from his family saw him go on to study at University College Dublin. The bravado of youth in McGuinness saw no reason why he, the son of a factory worker mother and a bread man father, from a family in which no-one had before gone on to higher education, should not be there.
Bravado can only take you so far, and while childhood had toughened him up to an extent, the local boy had never left Buncrana before moving away to university. The change hit him hard. “The homesickness of going to Dublin was savage,” he tells me, laughing about it in hindsight. “It was the sense of distance from home that did nearly destroy me. You should have seen me sometimes when I was 18 in Dublin, walking the streets, desolate, trying to find cars with Donegal number plates, going to touch the cars, that’s how much I missed it.”
“If you grew up gay in Donegal in the 1960s, a shrinking violet you were not”
Education and learning is at the very heart of McGuinness’s life. From his choices to take advantage of free secondary education and university, to his many adaptations of other writers’ great works. In recent years the London stage has seen his versions of Hecuba, Phaedra (both Donmar Warehouse), Helen (Shakespeare’s Globe) and Oedipus (National Theatre), while later this year his new version of Ibsen’s Ghosts will open at the Duchess theatre, starring McGuinness’s friend of 20 years Lesley Sharp. “She’s finally admitted that she’s old enough to do it,” he chuckles mischievously.
Why does he take on so many adaptations rather than concentrating on his own new pieces? “It’s a way of learning. You have to always be learning. You don’t know it all. The Greeks, how much they knew, how much they understood about how to construct a play. If you want to learn about Ibsen, you’ve got to go and study the mechanics of what he did, because he knows more about writing an Ibsen play than anybody else does. You’ve got to learn your craft, you’ve got to keep on learning your craft and you’ve got to keep on being threatened by what other people have done before you.”
“One of the great lessons you learn in playwriting is that so much of it depends on the conversation you have with yourself in the privacy of your own table, writing your play. You need to be very tough talking to yourself. That’s one of the reasons I do seven or eight drafts. After Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme [McGuinness’s hit play of the mid 1980s, for which he received much acclaim and the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright] I had to have a very tough talk with myself and say ‘You’ve a long way to go, you don’t know it all, you’d better get back and start again.’ Basically that’s what I do with every new play. The only thing I’ve learned in my entire life is that’s what happens with every new play; you’re starting again.”
To me, as McGuinness explains it, that sounds like a thankless task. To return to the very beginning after each project, to start as if you have never written a play before, must be hugely draining. “It’s tiring at times,” McGuinness confirms, “and it wears you out. Writing plays is hard, and keeping on writing plays is really hard, but it’s what I want to do and you have to pay a price for it. If this is what you want to do you should stop complaining and be grateful you have a chance to do it.”
“If you’re going into film or television you really need serious artillery around you to look after you”
A quick glance through McGuinness’s CV confirms that writing for the theatre is indeed what he wants to do. While he wrote the screenplay for Dancing At Lughnasa and recently wrote the euthanasia drama A Short Stay In Switzerland for the BBC, it is on the stage where his work is most prolific. “I know that devil,” he says. “I love that devil.”
He has a trust for theatre that other mediums don’t evoke; outside the auditorium and in the studio he feels vulnerable. “If you’re going into film or television,” he tells me, “you really need serious artillery around you to look after you.”
He had that, he says, with A Short Stay In Switzerland, which starred Julie Walters as the English doctor Anne Turner who, after being diagnosed with a neurological condition, travels to Switzerland to end her life. “That was a special project,” he admits. “I would need to find something that touched me that deeply before I do anything like that again.”
Until that comes along, he has Greta Garbo Came To Donegal and Ghosts to keep him busy, but, he says, “That’s it for the foreseeable future. I’m going away to write after that.” He doesn’t have either an image or a title to kick him off yet, which leaves him in a suspended state. “I’ll go away, wait for something to come,” he concludes. “Hope it will come soon.”