Greta Garbo Came To Donegal

Published January 12, 2010

One of the most enigmatic figures of cinema, Greta Garbo was known for her desire to be left alone. But in Frank McGuinness’s play she arrives at a rustic old house in Donegal in 1967 and finds herself surrounded by people.

She is a guest at the rural home of Englishman Sir Matthew Dover, who bought the grand farmhouse from an Irish family who squandered their money. He now employs them to work in the house that was once their own, as chauffeur, housekeeper and maid.

Paulie is the matriarchal figure of the quartet, who holds them all together in this unwelcome new life with a no-nonsense manner and a dry humour, hiding a loneliness and frustration. Her oft-drunken brother, James, picks regular fights with his petulant wife Sylvia, who blames him daily for losing the family wealth. Their daughter, Colette, is stuck in the middle, desperate not to turn out like her parents and dreaming of escaping to Dublin to study.
 
So the mysterious Swedish film star arrives with her abrupt manner and beige slacks in a household brimming with issues, arguments and simmering tensions. She may be the guest, but such is the self-centred nature of the household that any deference to her film star status quickly gives way to over-familiarity. She becomes one of the family, and her interaction with each member is highly influential.

There are allusions, too, to the mystery surrounding the private life of Garbo, who never married and was rumoured to have had relationships with both sexes. Through the understanding that grows between Garbo and spinster Paulie, and the increasingly tactile moments they share, McGuinness alludes to the Swede’s possible bi-sexuality.

It is this relationship which is the focus of the play. Both Michelle Fairley’s Paulie and Caroline Lagerfelt’s Garbo have things to hide and develop a mutual respect based as much on what they don’t reveal as what they do.

Nicolas Kent’s production is played out on Robert Jones’s bucolic set, fringed with grasses dried to straw by the Irish sun. Tom Lishman’s sound accurately depicts the ear-splitting call of a peacock, ever present but never seen, an invisible metaphor for the beautiful and highly individual interloper in Donegal.

CB