Frank McGuinness takes on Garbo

It’s never right to judge creative works for their local authenticity but how hard it is to resist. Have they got the items on the 1930s dresser exactly right in the latest production of Lughnasa? Maybe it’s worthier somehow to get excited at the depiction of universal themes outside your old half door. Nevertheless I’ll try to avoid both next week when I’m off to see the latest Frank McGuinness, Greta Garbo Came to Donegal at the dear old Tricycle theatre in Kilburn High Road, where the Irish émigré flavour is giving way gracefully to broader north west London multiculturalism. Modern Irish writers like McGuinness frighten us with the prospect of the terrible cliche of cunning peasants taking a rise out of the posh outsider – but only to rise far, far above it.The play gives a “stunningly evocative of a screen icon”, says the Guardian. The Telegraph awards it the full four stars, though Frank’s oeuvre in general is described as “notoriously uneven.” For the Times it’s both “astonishing and untidy”. There’s a common theme here I think – untidy like the man himself’s beard. For me, “Sons of Ulster “ is a rhetorical masterpiece, reminiscent of Shaw, while a few years ago, an Abbey production at the Old Vic of Someone to Watch Over Me exactly captured the muddled closeness and disconnections of the two cultures in wartime Buncrana and reconciled them stunningly. The Donegal mix of grandeur and grunge provides the ideal setting for the exotic familiar or stranger who sets everything alight and challenges the stereotypes. We near natives can’t help staying on the alert for false notes or bathos. In his best work. McGuinness is as you’d hope, near pitch perfect. I’m just catching up with Dermot Bolger’s absorbing novel The Family on Paradise Pier. Set in crumbling Big Houses at the time of the Free State’s rough birth it’s a miniature epic that explores the familiar theme of the natives coming into their own and the exotic Ascendancy in decline ( one of them King Billy Dutch). But here, far from being passive William Trevor avatars, the Anglo-Irish seek out a real revolution in Stalin’s Russia. But guess what? Home is always in Dunkineely, no matter where they roam…I’ll keep you posted on how Garbo gets on, alone or with her gay painter.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London