Greta Garbo Came to Donegal

Caroline Lagerfelt in 'Greta Garbo Came to Donegal' by Frank McGuinness presented by Tricycle Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Caroline Lagerfelt in 'Greta Garbo Came to Donegal' by Frank McGuinness presented by Tricycle Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Michelle Fairley and Caroline Lagerfelt in 'When Greta Garbo Came to Donegal' by Frank McGuinness, presented by Tricycle Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Michelle Fairley and Caroline Lagerfelt in 'When Greta Garbo Came to Donegal' by Frank McGuinness, presented by Tricycle Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

In his latest play, Frank McGuinness brings together many of his favoured techniques, themes, and dramatic influences. As in Mary and Lizzie, Mutabilitie, and Gates of Gold, he fictionalises around real-life figures, here the eponymous film star, who in the 1970s really did visit a wealthy English artist in Ireland’s North-West. McGuinness pushes the time of Garbo’s visit back to 1967, in order to create a temporal and cultural setting of maximum socio-political tension and imminent change, the type of environment familiar from Carthaginians, Dolly West’s Kitchen, and Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me. And we feel the deep influence of Chekhov (several of whose plays McGuinness has translated) here in the mood – languorous but undercut by familial tensions – and in many of the characters’ deep discontent with their lot.

All of this adds up to a great setup which McGuinness exploits well in early scenes, but he loses control of his many narrative and thematic strands as the play goes on. As a result he ends up flirting with, but not quite delivering, a new wrinkle in the most provocative aspect of his dramaturgy: the way he undermines and subverts traditional assumptions about gender – in other words, its queerness.

Robert Jones’ lovely set immediately establishes that we are in a Big House play with a difference. The expected kitchen table is centre stage, but no walls divide domestic from outside spaces: a pathway on the left side of the stage lined with tall grass creates a sense of the wild beauty just beyond this sad central space of loss and containment.

The Hennessy family were forced to sell this house years before the play began (just why they had to do so is one of the plot strands that unfurls in the overladen second act), and now work as servants for posh English painter Matthew Dover (Daniel Gerroll). The final member (pun intended) of the household is Matthew’s lover, Cockney boxer-turned-gardener Harry (Tom McKay), who, about 15 minutes into the action, arrives on stage bollock-naked, interrupting what was up to that point a fairly standard first scene of plot-and-character-establishing conversation. It’s a wonderfully queer moment, and vintage McGuinness, particularly the telling under-reaction of Paulie Hennessy (Michelle Fairley), the 50-something spinster who runs the household, to the prime specimen of manhood standing before her: “Don’t think of waving that contraption at me,” she deadpans. “It will get you nowhere.”

But Harry is there merely to convey a message from the master: an important visitor is expected, an old friend of Matthew’s on a stopover between New York and Paris, who just happens to be the world-famous, reclusive film star. This brings us to one of the trickier aspects of McGuinness’ conceit: seeing other actors portray famous people on stage and screen always brings with it a certain awkwardness, a result of the audience’s inevitable knowledge that it’s not really them. Cleverly, however, McGuinness builds that awkwardness into the substance of Garbo’s entrance scene, in the contrast between the regal hauteur of Caroline Lagerfelt as the famous actress (all cashmere, camel-coloured trousers, and highly credible Swedish accent) and the slightly bewildered demeanour of the Hennessys, who can’t quite believe that this creature is in their midst.

Strained pleasantries are exchanged; an amusing antipathy between Garbo and Paulie’s vulgar sister-in-law Sylvia (Angeline Ball) is established; Garbo heads to the guest room for a lie-down... and then what? Many of the play’s problems stem from McGuinness’ apparent indecision about where to take this promising but indeterminate scenario, and so he takes it in a few too many directions. The soi-disant “great gloomy Swede” answers the requisite questions about why she left filmmaking; Matthew, who’s strapped for cash and tired of Ireland, pressures Garbo to buy the house away from him; Colette (Lisa Diveney), late-teenage daughter of Sylvia and James (Owen McDonnell), strains against the small-mindedness of the local culture and plots her escape via medical school at UCD; increasingly unsubtle mention is made of political rumblings nearby in Derry.

Tom-McKay, Michelle-Fairley. Photo: Tristram KentonSetting the Hennessys up as a model of colonised dysfunctionality is clearly one of McGuinness’ main agendas here, with Matthew representing the English oppressor; the forever-bickering, miserable Sylvia and alcoholic James standing in for the dysfunctional Irish; and Colette representing the possibly liberated future. The other main current in the play is the interplay between Garbo and Paulie, who slowly nurture a bond based on evident mutual attraction, and fascination with the differences and similarities between their lives. Both are bitterly witty, taciturn, and clearly longing for something they don’t have, but Garbo (whose sexual ambiguity was well-known) is a culturally-enabled nomad while Paulie is tied to this house for reasons we don’t quite find enough about, but have to do with family secrets and – this appears to be the connection between the two stories McGuinness is aiming for – the fact of her dispossessed Irishness.

In a number of intriguing, well-played scenes, the two women discuss their various lots in life and we see Paulie slowly begin to come out of her shell. But McGuinness stops short of following this plot line through to any explicit articulation of lesbian desire (which would have been a first in his writing); the closest we get is the two women dancing a tango on the kitchen table. His point, possibly, is that this is as far as a woman of Paulie’s generation and upbringing could go - but one leaves the play longing that McGuinness had let his queerly fanciful side override his realistic, Chekhovian/Ibsenian tendencies. We feel this struggle in his hesitancy to let Garbo really leave and the play end.

Nicholas Kent’s production, too, errs on the side of old-fashioned naturalism: too many clunky moving-furniture-around-in-the-dark blackouts, too many moments when we wonder where the back door of the house really is because everyone seems to be leaving from different places. A few odd casting choices also distract: Ball, ever-luminous, and McDonnell simply seem too attractive, young, and upright to represent the oppression that McGuinness wants them to. In general the male characters here are underwritten as compared to the women: the nearly-great creations here are Garbo and Paulie, and the marvellous chemistry between Lagerfelt and Fairley is the production’s highlight.

Karen Fricker lectures in contemporary theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London and deputy London theatre critic for Variety (US).

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  • Theatre

Greta Garbo Came to Donegal by Frank McGuinness

7 January – 20 February, 2010

Produced by Tricycle Theatre, London
In Tricycle Theatre, London

Directed by Nicholas Kent

Set & Costume Design: Robert Jones

Lighting Design: Matthew Eagland

Sound Design: Tom Lishman

With: Angeline Ball, Lisa Diveney, Michelle Fairley, Daniel Gerroll, Caroline Lagerfelt, Owen McDonnell