‘I’m not looking for soundbites in Greek tragedy’

Frank McGuinness on adaptations and Electra

MONDAY MORNING at 10am, a Greek tragedy and a full house, this was the unlikely combination NUI Galway achieved for its inaugural Theatre Season with a fine production of Sophocles’ Electra.

Electra was adapted by Frank McGuinness and directed by academic Charlotte McIvor, and McGuinness himself was in attendance to see the student cast acquit themselves admirably in this timeless classic and take part in a post-show talk.

McGuinness has a long association with Electra. His adaptation was a huge success in Britain and on Broadway when it was first staged in 1997.

“I got a phone-call from the director David Leveaux, whose work I admire immensely, and he mentioned he wanted to do Electra, and with Zoe Wanamaker, who I also admire,” McGuinness told me during our interview. “ I knew I was in good hands with them and that helped me overcome my fear of Greek tragedy.

“Prior to that I never thought I would tackle a Greek play. When I was about 20 I saw a production of Yeats’s Oedipus at the Abbey and it had an enormous impact on me, that was in 1973. When I was confronted with David’s demand to do Electra I took it very slowly and patiently, I knew I had to go through it line by line. Strangely, for a play that deals with grief and loneliness and violence it was a very happy experience for me working on it.”

McGuinness has been a prolific adaptor/translator with more than 20 such plays to his credit.

“I do these versions for one reason only and that is to try to write better plays on my own,” he tells me. “As a craftsman, or craftswoman, the more you know of your craft the better you can make it. I find it extremely instructive to immerse yourself in the best theatre that has ever been written. That is bound to rub off a wee bit. If you only come away with a line for your own work it’s enough. I also love the challenge of it, of pitting myself against these plays and see what I come up with.

“I have done Ibsen, Chekov, and Lorca and I will only take on them when I am working with a very able and generous scholar who knows the original language well enough to give me a word for word literal translation and can help me through complicated situations in the text.

“I never go near anyone else’s version when I am working on something because of a fear of contamination. I feel I need to be left to do my own thing. I do versions I think chime with my own generation, they have a shelf life of about 15 to 25 years and then somebody else comes along and does a new version. Sophocles’ Electra is not going to age, it will outlast me but I wanted to put an imprint of my own voice on it.”

Adaptations of Greek classics are often staged with a topical political resonance but that is never a motivation for McGuinness.

“I have no interest in reducing the plays to an identifiable political situation, and especially not an Irish one. When I’m doing an adaptation I want to get away from the bloody place!” he declares.

“Electra is about human confusion, I’m not looking for soundbites in Greek tragedy, if I use the escape clause of looking at it as a metaphor for big situations then I am getting into the ephemera of the play. For me the great excitement of the play is around Electra’s sister Chrysothemis who is the daughter of Agamemnon, who inherits his warrior spirit, that is a very specific battle that has to be fought in the rehearsal room and on the stage, that is why these plays are still so brilliant, they are about doing work in the theatre, they are not there as snapshots of Greek relevance or crises.”

McGuinness expands on his view of Electra as a character.

“The most shocking thing in the play is she is a woman, she is a sexual character, she deeply pines for the fact she is not married and has no children and will not marry or have children, all that has been taken from her. She has this very radical understanding of her body and her mind and that understanding is part and parcel of the best roles that have been written for women and men.

“Electra and her mother Clytemnestra are cut from the same cloth. I learned a lot about writing about the family from reading the Greeks. The family is their story. My next play, The Matchbox, is directly inspired by Hecuba and if everything goes to plan that will go on here in the Galway Arts Festival in 2015.”

Due to popular demand, Electra will be revived for a limited run on NUI Galway campus next week.  Call the Socs Box at 091 - 492852 for information and exact timings.

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