Frank McGuinness on Euripides’ Hecuba at the Donmar, 2004
30th August 2004
The last time Frank McGuinness adapted a Greek drama, he was fired by personal grief. This time, present-day events provided the inspiration. First published in the Daily Telegraph on Aug 30, 2004
For Frank McGuinness, it was the best of times and worst of times. His version of Electra, starring Zoë Wanamaker, was one of the sensations of 1997, taking London by storm, before transferring to Broadway. After a string of successful translations of European classics – including an acclaimed rendition of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, with Janet McTeer as Nora, which bagged four Tony Awards that year – here was conclusive proof that, as well as being one of Ireland’s foremost playwrights, McGuinness had a way with others’ words that few could match.
Yet the story behind his fresh, flinty remodelling of Sophocles’ anatomy of grief and rage was one of, as he puts it, “desperate psychic upheaval”: during the time he worked on the play, his first Greek translation, he lost first his mother, then – 10 months later, mid-rehearsals – his father. The production sobbed with genuine grief – the more so as Wanamaker herself was also mourning her mother. “I couldn’t have written it at any other time,” McGuinness says now. All the same, he was left feeling emotionally drained by the experience.
It’s taken seven years for him to broach another Greek tragedy, and the fact that he arrives hobbling on a crutch, having broken his foot following a slip-up in his kitchen brought on by the exhaustion of overwork, suggests that this time round has been pretty taxing too.
Electra, however, left him so impressed by the set-up at the Donmar Warehouse, so enamoured of its intimacy, that he had vowed to return. “Greek plays were done in gigantic spaces,” he admits, “but I think a contemporary audience needs to see and hear those plays in as much detail as possible. The Donmar’s perfect for that.”
Hecuba bears striking similarities to Electra, in outline at least: in Euripides’ play, Hecuba, queen of Troy, loses her son through the treachery of a former ally, and her daughter at the hand of the conquering Greek army. She enacts a terrible vengeance; not so far removed, you might think, from Electra, who yearns to avenge Agamemnon her father’s death.
But McGuinness, a big, shaggy, ebullient 50-year-old, is far more conscious of the differences between the two works. For ages, he explains, he didn’t “get the Greeks” at all, not even in his capacity as lecturer in English literature at University College, Dublin. “I’d attempted to teach them, couldn’t do it. They didn’t mean anything to me, they just didn’t seem to touch me.” All that changed with Electra, but working on both plays in painstaking detail – from literal translations, he hastens to add, being no Greek scholar – “wised me up to make no broad statements about Greek theatre. These plays are so individual, you can hear the voices of the playwrights coming through. That’s been a revelation. I never knew Greek plays were so intimate and specific.”
Where grief was, unavoidably, his route into the world of Electra, with Hecuba, what drove his interest was politics. “Hecuba is set in the aftermath of a war, and of course Ireland, since the mid-’90s, has also been in the aftermath of war. The reality is only hitting me now,” he says, flushing red with indignation, “of the sheer desire to live in hatred among the extremists, who are being indulged left, right and centre.”
He continues: “At the end of the play, Agamemnon says: `We can go home now – the war is over.’ And, of course, for a Greek audience, the warning bells would have been sounding – they know what is to come. What the play communicates is: do not feel secure, never feel that you are home and dry. So there was an immediate correspondence between my society and this play.”
As he persevered, however, another political resonance came through: “By the time I was conducting the nitty-gritty of working on the text, we were also in the midst of the Iraq war. What was ringing in my head was Bush’s ludicrous statement of `mission accomplished’, when it clearly was not accomplished.”
Not that any of this has been spelt out overtly in his version. In particular, as with Electra, his Hecuba introduces no obvious Irish “accent” and he’s sceptical about the Irish literary tradition of harnessing Greek myths to the country’s troubles, insisting: “You’ve got to earn the right to use the Greeks.” His primary hope, he explains, is that his unadorned approach to Euripides’ poetry will have a visceral impact: “The words should be like stones hitting a wall. Hecuba is such a powerful entity that it speaks for itself. If someone comes to see this play, though, and leaves it with a better understanding of what individuals suffer through the consequence of militarism, I will be happy.”
Since Electra, McGuinness hasn’t stood still in producing original plays, most notably the widely panned Mutabilitie (1998), a sprawling epic about Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser in Ireland, seen at the National, and Dolly West’s Kitchen (Old Vic, 2000), a more generously received affair that lifted the lid on the heated subject of Irish neutrality during the Second World War.
Even without his prolific parallel career as a translator/adaptor, McGuinness has been a hard man to pin down from the earliest days. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (1985) – which made his name and remains his best-known play along with the Beirut hostage drama Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me (1992) – so adroitly relayed the experience of a company of Ulstermen in the trenches that to this day it’s mistakenly assumed that the author – raised working-class and Republican Catholic in Co Donegal – must be a Loyalist writer.
Openly gay, with a partner of 26 years, and unafraid to deploy homosexual characters, he grew up feeling an outsider and has remained an anomaly in the Irish new writing scene, both proudly one of its number and entirely a law unto himself.
“I don’t want to be thought of as a Catholic writer or a gay writer,” he says, summing himself up. “I want to be an Irish writer, or better, a balding, greying, red-head writer.” He laughs: “That’ll do me.”