Esteemed playwright and UCD lecturer Professor Frank McGuinness speaks to Paul Fennessy about his latest Ibsen adaptation and his unyielding love of Shakespeare
“Do you believe in the supernatural?” These were the first words I ever heard spoken, booming across a rapt Theatre L, from the lips of Professor Frank McGuinness in his inimitable Donegal brogue. They were of course in reference to the question which, according to McGuinness, Shakespeare forces his readers to confront at the beginning of Macbeth. In my impressionable first-year mind, the play suddenly took on a resonance entirely disparate from the cold, formulaic Leaving Cert-style readings with which I had previously associated the work.
Four years on, McGuinness’ passion for Shakespeare’s works remains undimmed, yet it is Henrik Ibsen – a playwright that he in fact considers to be “the key European figure since Shakespeare” – whom he is currently bringing to the attention of the Irish theatre-going public. Starring Alan Rickman and Fiona Shaw, McGuinness’ adaptation of John Gabriel Borkman has consistently played to sold out audiences at the Abbey theatre.
While it may have a somewhat morose reputation, Ibsen’s penultimate play bears unmistakable relevance to contemporary times, given how the title character is a failed banker. Did these obvious parallels to the financial crisis provoke McGuinness into staging the play, or was the work’s imitation of life a happy coincidence?
“Or an unhappy coincidence,” McGuinness laughs. “That’s absolutely the case. I think over the last two or three years, the thing with the Abbey, they’ve kind of known that the times would be appropriate for the play to be put on. But that didn’t in any way attract me to it initially. I was much more attracted to the nature of the family and the family destroying itself.
“I think that a play must speak for itself,” he continues. “I think that’s the best way to let things stand because I don’t want to improve on Ibsen, or make Ibsen relevant. Ibsen knows what he’s doing. Ibsen makes himself relevant.”
In addition to its stark contemporary significance, McGuinness attributes the play’s current popularity with its ability to derive humour from the bleakest of circumstances. “Borkman himself, in his sheer self-obsession and his selfishness, in his greed and in the self-assertion he has, is ultimately quite a comic character,” he says.
“He has done terrible things to his people. He has brought great ruin on his people, on his family and on his society, but there is that sheer naked expression that is bleakly comic as well. This is one of the great powers of the play and Ibsen never loses sight of that.”
In conjunction with this latest venture, McGuinness has also written two other adaptations of Ibsen’s works in recent years, bringing the total number of the Norwegian’s plays that he has worked on to nine.
Furthermore, McGuinness is fresh from finishing The Hanging Gardens – an original work set to be performed in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, whose plot he rather cryptically describes as focusing on “a mind losing control of itself”. Given this prolific output of plays, is he forced to adhere to a meticulous schedule in order to combine writing with his academic commitments in UCD?
“There’s no fixed routine actually,” he says. “[Teaching] kind of gets me out of the house and gets me out of my own head, which I find necessary. Also, what I find is that by exposing yourself to a different generation, then you’re stepping out from your ivory tower and people are coming at things from a radically different angle and bringing their sense of experience to bear on a text.”
In addition to the hours he spends rigorously analysing the likes of Shakespeare, McGuinness is also Professor of Creative Writing at UCD. When quizzed on the topic, he provides some useful advice for aspiring writers.
“Half the battle is self-belief and the other half is having a hard neck to last. The one quality I really wish to anyone starting off writing is stamina.
“Because you’re going to get hard knocks at every stage of your career – some of which can silence you if you’re not careful,” he continues, giving the impression of someone who has had to cope with their fair share of vitriol. “And that happens at every stage of your career and to every writer. It may look as if some are charmed or blessed with their success, but there’s not a writer worth a damn who hasn’t faced the horror of losing it or not being able to keep going.”
McGuinness speaks with the fervour of someone for whom the theatre is so integral to their being that it is practically coursing through the veins. And yet for all his praise of Ibsen and Tennessee Williams among others, it is Shakespeare, and in particular A Winter’s Tale, that remains his number one love.
“It makes me glad to be on the earth,” he reveals. “It makes me glad that I can speak English. And it makes me glad that I’m working in theatre.”
John Gabriel Borkman is running until November 20th in the Abbey Theatre.