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Feature - Frank McGuinness on his new play, Greta Garbo Came to Donegal

WHEN I was growing up, I thought Kilburn was the capital of Ireland,” says Frank McGuinness, the prolific dramatist best known for his award-winning Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. His new play, Greta Garbo Came to Donegal, is now on at Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre. 
Kilburn – “County Kilburn” as it was known in the 1960s (more recently, some wag thought up “the Afghan-Irish Republic of Kilburn” due to the influx of refugees) – was, McGuinness says, perfect for the premiere of Garbo because of its longstanding links with the Emerald Isle. 
If the series of plays about Afghanistan staged at the playhouse last year was an acknowledgement of migration to the area from that fractious land, this year’s Ireland season, which kicked off last week with the opening of McGuinness’s play, is a nod to Kilburn’s Irish heart. 
Garbo is set in 56-year-old McGuinness’s home county of Donegal in 1967 – a time when Ireland was on the brink of violent change. Enter the wistful-eyed star of monochrome classics of American cinema’s golden age. Except she didn’t, at least not until the 1970s. 
“I’ve changed the year to make it more fictitious,” explains McGuinness. “I wanted to avoid the whole Catholic-Protestant carry-on, because it’s been done to death, and write about Irish culture from a dif­ferent angle. Using Garbo as a focus was different. 
“The play is very different from Bloody Sunday [a piece of so-called “tribunal theatre” staged at the Tricycle in 2005]. That was documentary-based. This is very much fiction.” 
The lead in many silent movies, Garbo disliked wasting words, refusing to sign autographs, answer fan mail or give interviews, and reportedly living largely in solitude from her early retirement in the 1940s until her death in 1990.
According to McGuinness, however, Garbo was an utterly level-headed woman. Her happiness depended on her isolation.  
“I think it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to have received the kind of adulation she received,” he says. “She was extremely intelligent and extremely sane. Her way of dealing with the adulation was to hold it right back, to keep everything apart from herself. That was how she kept her head.”  
McGuinness describes Garbo as “a real Swede – hard-working and honest”. Having risen from humble origins, the beautiful star “saw through a lot of the hype about her. She didn’t believe it”. 
McGuinness himself knows something about rising from humble origins. A playwright of solidly working-class stock (his mother was a factory hand, his father a bread delivery man), he achieved prominence in the early 1980s and is famously insecure about the reception of his work. 
His first play, The Factory Girls, was written in a hurry. As a student, McGuinness had done some directing and was keen to meet Patrick Mason, a director he admired. Mason was running a workshop. To join, applicants had to submit an analysis of a play they had written.
McGuinness, who had at that time not written any plays, applied any­way, sending in an essay about a non-existent drama. He was accepted, realised he had better bash the play out fast and completed it in a week. 
“If I had the cheek to apply, I should not say I was scared of failure,” he says “I was thrilled. I  was revelling in the challenge.”  
As part of his research, McGuinness visited the hotel where Garbo stayed – a modest establishment in the wind-battered Ulster countryside. That such an apparently delicate woman should choose to holiday in rugged Donegal was, McGuinness says, “a big deal” for the hoteliers. The taciturn star even spoke with some locals – but as to whether she liked them, that is debatable.  
“Did Garbo like anybody?” McGuinness says. “That’s part of her attraction, the way she cast everybody at a distance. It was a game she played. You never knew where you stood with her.”

Greta Garbo Came to Donegal is at the Tricycle until February 20, with the Irish season contin­uing until mid-April. 



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