The ancient gods were on Frank McGuiness’ side when he wrote The Match Box, his classically inspired but devastatingly contemporary one-woman play revived this week for a short Scottish tour by the Borders-based Firebrand Theatre Company. Charting the slow-burning aftermath of a 12-year-old girl’s killing, the audience sees this through the mind of her mother, Sal, who has fled the city for a cottage in an isolated rural wilderness. During the revelations that emerge, McGuinness’ play evolves into something as darkly poetic as his work for larger casts such as Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me. The simmering fury of bereaved mother Sal, however, seems to tap into a more recognisably current malaise.
“It started in the rehearsal room of the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool,” says McGuinness, telling the story behind the story with a suitably epic sweep. “I was busy working on a musical, and the Everyman and Playhouse were looking for a new one-woman piece. Somewhat fortuitously, my friend Lia Williams was looking to direct something, so we came as a package.”
McGuinness is in his room at University College Dublin where he lectures in English, when he says all this. All his marking is done, and, preparing for the new semester, he can take the time to reflect on the real roots of the play. These are two-fold.
“The idea actually came about a couple of years before,” he says. “I was doing a production of my version of Hecuba by Euripides, which is a furious play about a mother’s revenge after losing a child in the most horrific of circumstances. I thought Euripides’ play was one of the most passionate portrayals of the survival urge I’d ever seen in the theatre. I wondered how you might do that in a modern context, and slowly but surely the story emerged.”
Real life events close to home also left their mark.
“There was something that happened in Liverpool,” McGuiness remembers. “A child was murdered, and there was a terrible cover-up. I used that incident as a jumping off point to look at how grief can consume you, and make you capable of anything.”
Although he doesn’t mention it by name, McGuiness is probably referring to the case of 11-year old Rhys Jones, who was tragically murdered in 2007 by killers protected by a wall of silence. There are plenty of others as well which mark a disturbing rise in gun culture. The recent TV drama, Little Boy Blue, was based on the case.
Williams’ production of The Match Box, featuring Leanne Best as Sal, premiered in the intimate confines of Liverpool Playhouse Studio in 2012, before transferring to the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. A new production directed by Joan Sheehy was seen three years later as part of Galway International Arts Festival. With Cathy Belton as Sal, it was described in the Herald as ‘a searingly powerful piece of work.’
“Having seen the two productions, what struck me instantly was how radically different they were, but how volatile they were with it,” says McGuinness. “It scares the s*** out of me when I see the amount of rage that comes out of it. You see a lot of petty bickering and me-me-me-ness elsewhere, but I don’t think that taps into the same depths as the woman in this play does. You have to remember that when someone loses a child, especially in the way that Sal does here, they can sink into extraordinary depths of grief, and there’s a danger there that it can drive people to take extreme action.”
McGuinness has reinvented classic Greek plays several times as he has done with The Match Box, albeit in more straightforward adaptations. As well as looking at Hecuba, he has penned versions of Electra and Oedipus, both drawn from Sophocles’ canon, as well as taking a look at another Euripides play, Helen.
McGuinness’ work was last seen in Scotland by way of a touring revival of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, his First World War set play that visited the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow in a production. Prior to that, Rachel O’Riordan directed Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me at Perth Theatre.
McGuinness is no stranger to Scotland on a personal level either. He is great friends with actress Maureen Beattie, who he met in 1989 when they worked together on McGuinness’ play, Mary and Lizzie, at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“One of the first shows I ever saw was Francie and Josie,” he says. “and I’ve family in Dunblane and Dumbarton, as well as friends in Edinburgh. One of the reasons why Maureen and I bonded was that she was born when her father Johnny was on tour in Ireland, so we were born within a few hours of each other in County Donegal. But I’m delighted the show is going on in Scotland. Firebrand are a good company.”
Richard Baron’s production of The Match Box comes hot on the heels of him overseeing a revival of Rona Munro’s Belfast-set play, Bold Girls, at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow. For The Match Box, Baron’s production will feature Janet Coulson as Sal in a play which provides no safety net for the sole performer onstage throughout the play’s 90-minute duration. Coulson last appeared with Firebrand in another solo work, George Brandt’s play, Grounded.
The Match Box is the latest example of Firebrand’s efforts to create contemporary theatre in the Borders. Focusing on revivals of works by living writers, the company launched several years ago with a look at Talking Heads, Alan Bennett’s series of monologues first seen on TV. This was followed by productions of David Greig’s Being Norwegian, whose plays Letter of Last Resort and Outlying Islands have also been produced by Firebrand. The company have taken fresh looks at Oleanna by David Mamet and White Rose by Peter Arnott, as well as new takes on Rona Munro’s play, Iron, and 54% Acrylic by David Harrower, and The Great Train Race by Robert Dawson Scott.
As with its previous outings, The Match Box is an incendiary gift to any actress who takes it on.
“I think if it goes well,” says McGuinness says of Firebrand’s new production, “it’s going to be a performance of such integrity and intimacy that you won’t forget it. It’s a play about love, the things love can make you do, and the extremes that can take you.”
The Match Box, Byre Theatre, St Andrew’s, February 1-3; Birnam Arts, Birnam, February 7; Heart of Hawick, Hawick, February 10; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, February 13-17; Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, February 20-24.
The Herald, February 1st 2018