Fear and loathing in Buncrana
Frank McGuinness’s new play, The Hanging Gardens, and Arimathea, the novel he thought he should write as research for it, draw deeply on his experience of growing up in a threatening, oppressive Ireland
Bleak vision: Frank McGuinness. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times
Some time ago, as Frank McGuinness toiled to bring a long-gestating play to fruition, he decided that some research might help. As his story concerned an ageing novelist slipping into dementia, he set about acquiring in-depth knowledge of the subject, though not in the way one might expect.
“From the earliest days that the play manifested itself in my imagination I knew it would be a very wise piece of research to at least pretend you’re writing a novel,” McGuinness says. “So about three years ago I did. But I really didn’t have any intention that it was going to be a new departure. I do a lot research of very different kinds for new plays, and it was very firmly of that camp at that stage. But, having written a novel, I now have some sympathy with my character’s madness: it’s a very demanding task.”
That the Donegal-born playwright should have felt compelled to produce a full-length work of fiction in order to create a stage character is indicative of the febrile energy that has made McGuinness one of Ireland’s greatest dramatists. That the novel in question, Arimathea, should be published just as the play that spurred it, The Hanging Gardens, is set to open as part of Dublin Theatre Festival says even more about his vocational and imaginative rigour. Though markedly different in content, the works share many thematic touchstones, from the ambivalent effects of art and religion to the dynamics of family and the prospect of death.
What’s more, both book and play draw deeply on McGuinness’s own experiences. Arimathea recounts how life in an oppressively pious Donegal town is turned upside down by the arrival of an enigmatic Italian artist, commissioned to paint the Stations of the Cross in the local Catholic church. Inspired by a real Italian who rendered ecclesiastical scenes in McGuinness’s native Buncrana at the turn of the 20th century, the novel updates the story to the 1950s, chronicling the personal and social fissures opened by the outsider’s presence.
“It came remarkably quickly, because I was dealing with voices that were very close to me,” he says. And although he concedes that his use of monologues is highly theatrical – “Henry James it’s not” – the heightened atmosphere and vivid portrait of local life make for a striking read. It is also very funny. One can see why the interest of the publisher Michael O’Brien was piqued by the manuscript McGuinness had previously kept locked in a desk drawer.
Return to the Abbey
As his first original drama for the Abbey since Dolly West’s Kitchen, in 1999, The Hanging Gardens marks a return to the stage where McGuinness made his name with plays such as The Factory Girls and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. “The Abbey is home, but sometimes you have to leave home to appreciate it, and for them to appreciate you,” he says.
Directed by Patrick Mason, its story of a grown-up family returning home to deal with the mental deterioration of their novelist father (played by Niall Buggy) draws on concerns from McGuinness’s more recent past.
“It’s something I’ve been brooding on for a fair while, but I couldn’t have done this 20 years ago,” he says. “You have to get to a stage where you really are the next generation to go. I mean, I’ve never recovered from the death of my parents, in the 1990s – the double whammy of them both dying within a year really brought home my own mortality. Also, I turned 60 at the end of July, and that was another landmark.