Famished Castle: ‘What happens lost love? Where does it go?’

Hilary Fannin’s play takes in a decade of loves won and lost and our economic boom and bust


‘It’s a comedy. But it’s a really sad comedy,” says Hilary Fannin of her new play, Famished Castle. “The first scene I wrote was about a woman going to a mature singles resort and attempting to have a sexual encounter with a waiter. I remember thinking to myself, ‘What in the name of God is going on here? What am I actually writing about?’ ”

Famished Castle, Fannin’s first theatre piece since her 2010 reworking of the Greek tragedy Phaedra – which was also produced by Rough Magic and also directed by Lynne Parker – is a piece about “old love. Lost love. What happens it? Where does it go?”

But it’s a story of its time, as well. “And then the way the country started to reckon itself post-boom started to chime in. I’m loath to mention it, because it’s not about that. Essentially, it’s a love story. But when I started to write these characters looking back at 10 years of their own lives, I realised that I was writing a retrospective look at what’s been happening to us. And so the family is a microcosm of that bigger society.”


Waterford homecoming

The play, currently at the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire, premiered at Waterford’s newly refurbished Theatre Royal. “There’s a general feeling that new theatre from companies such as Rough Magic should be happening outside of Dublin,” Fannin says. “And the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s not just that it’s a beautiful theatre, but the fact that everyone is away from home and can work in a very cohesive, concentrated way is very good for the company as a whole, I think.”

It was also a kind of homecoming for Fannin, whose first stage play, Mackerel Sky, was staged by Red Kettle in Waterford in 1999. “In the 1980s – which was when Rough Magic would have started out of Trinity, and Red Kettle also started down in Waterford – I was involved with a group of people who set up a company called Wet Paint. That was a very fertile time in the 1980s, a kind of kickback against the fact that there was just no work to be had in theatre. And so a lot of groups set themselves up on the 40 quid a week they got from AnCO courses.”

Fannin began her career as an actor. These days she is better known to Irish Times readers as the author of a breezy, bitter-sweet column that emerges every Friday. Does she miss being on stage? “Oh God, no. Jeez. I was dreadful. No. There could be eight, nine, 10 months between auditions – never mind get the job. Last night, before the first preview, I had a gin and tonic at five o’clock. And I thought to myself: I’m so glad I’m not an actor.”

She says there’s quite an overlap between writing a weekly column and writing a play.

“I’m not a journalist,” she says. “I don’t know what I am. But I work pretty hard on the column, and I’m very, very grateful to have it. Apart from bringing a cheque every month, it gives me the confidence to say I am a writer.

“It’s very hard to maintain confidence if you’re a playwright, because there are very few opportunities to have your work on. Though Phaedra was a sellout and a big success, that was five years ago. So you have to maintain your belief that you’re able to keep going. Also, because of the deadline, the weekly column is a kind of writing muscle. Once you’re at the computer anyhow, it makes it easier to stay there and keep writing.”


Kind of grown-up

She describes Famished Castle as a “really contained” play. There are four cast members – Aislín McGuckin, Vinny McCabe, Eleanor Methven and Ray Scannell – and the themes are, says Fannin, “kind of grown-up: love and loss and death and grief and the compromises you make in your life”.

Where did she come by the title? “Like everybody who writes, I spend an awful lot of time lying on the floor and thinking I should be doing the ironing,” she says. “And then I put on the telly. Michael D was being inaugurated and Enda [Kenny] came out with this very good speech. I thought, That’s amazing. I wonder who writes his speeches?”

Shortly afterwards she met, through a mutual acquaintance, the Taoiseach’s longtime speechwriter, Miriam O’Callaghan. (“Not the RTÉ Miriam O’Callaghan,” says Fannin.)

O’Callaghan has worked on many of the Taoiseach’s most successful speeches, including those on the Cloyne report and to the survivors of the Magdalene laundries. The presidential inauguration speech referred to the Irish proverb “Is fearr bothán biamhar ná caisleán gortach”; “a cabin with food is better than a famished castle”.

“Enda was saying to Michael D that it’s the end of the cardboard crenellations, when it all looked fantastic on the outside but on the inside we were an empty shell. There was something about that idea of a very sharp, glittery exterior you can present to the world when inside things are kind of raw and empty, which seemed like a good metaphor for the play.

“And then Diego, the producer, said ‘How am I gonna sell a play called Famished Castle?’ So we tried to think of a more poppy title, and failed utterly. So we went back to Famished Castle.”

  • Famished Castle is at the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, until May 23rd
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