Those who don’t know him could be forgiven for noting Charlie McGuinness’s youth, and the subject matter of his latest play ‘From the Belly of a Whale’, and mistaking him for a godless church basher.
They’d be wrong. He’s mild-mannered, considered in his responses, and if not quite a holy Joe, he’s no heathen either.
“I’m spiritual,” Charlie confesses. “I go to Lough Derg with my dad most years, but I don’t go to Mass every Sunday. I tip into the Cathedral sometimes if I’m out for a walk on my own. I can’t say I’m a fully practising Catholic, but I definitely like the idea of a faith. I think everyone has a yearning for faith because you can’t explain everything.”
Quotes from Matthew’s Gospel found their way into Charlie’s first play ‘Shoebox and Whiskey’, which reached the All–Ireland One Act finals in 2013 and was fourth overall, and the following year was shortlisted for the prestigious PJ O’Connor RTÉ radio play award. Maybe it was due to this immediate success that he found himself once more leafing through the same Gospel for ideas. Ask and you shall receive: Charlie stumbled across the famous yarn of Jonas, which of course netted the Whale reference of the title.
‘From the Belly of a Whale’ sees the second coming result in a world where states are segregated into dystopian garden centres populated by oppressed people with fractured memories. The press bumpfh intriguingly explains that the characters are “housed together in a system defined by personal violence and the violence of a brutal political regime, [and] discover that their horrific personal histories might tie them together more tightly than the ever-constraining grip of the all-powerful JC and his minion, Jonas”.
Charlie explains: “While Jonah in the play [Jonas] is a very hard character, the overall thing I’d love to get at is the vacuum that’s left when religion is taken away from a society, and the problems that leads to. I think in everyone, whether you like it or not, you want something to believe in.”
He suspects that the generation born in mid-80s Ireland were amongst the first for whom an unshakeable faith wasn’t a given.
“Even though we were still taught it in school, there was obviously that element of doubt around us that kids pick up on. It was never hit home as much for us as the generations before us.
“I’m trying to say that religion is essentially a good thing, it’s not a bad thing to have a faith. And it’s not the teaching that are the problem. It’s mankind that ruins these religions, it’s not the religion itself - that’s what I’m trying to get at. It’s not an anti-faith play at all. It’s pro-faith if anything.”
He clarifies: “If you have a faith and follow it to a nice spiritual level it’s a great thing to have in a person’s life. This play is about the problems with fundamentalist faith and then the problems with having no faith at all. I think there’s definitely a happy middle ground there if you follow your faith to a sensible, responsible level.”
While ‘Shoebox and Whiskey’ was beautifully crafted and had truly believable dialogue, at its heart it was a conventional play. The Celt wonders why the departure to an outlandish setting for this new play. He notes that his second play ‘Cow’s Original Wish’ - a one-man play starring Hugh O’Brien in a cow costume - was similarly absurdist.
“Cow’s Original Wish is a love story - it’s a love letter to my wife. I think it’s partly the Irishness in me. I couldn’t just have a young man stand up and say these things, I had to get a 70-year-old in a cow outfit,” he says laughing before affecting the voice of a fella chided by mates, “‘Yeah I said I loved her, but I said it in a cow outfit’.”
He suspects ‘Shoebox and Whiskey’ remains his best play, but is more excited about ‘From the Belly of a Whale’.
“In this I very much got away from myself. While there’s obviously going to be parts of me in there, it was very much an escape from me - it’s more imagination.”
Whilst his imagination is liberated, allowing the influences of heavyweights such as Sarah Kane, Enda Walsh, George Orwell, Samuel Beckett to seep into the work, the characters’ unsettling back stories are all based on true events which he heard second hand. To preserve the plot, we’ll leave it that they’re pretty harrowing experiences.
“While I may have taken some poetic licence, they are true, and I think that’s an important thing for the audience to know as well.
“As dark as some of the stories go, they’re still true. We all know these things are happening, but just to challenge ourselves - what are we doing about it?”
A son of respected veteran actors Killian McGuinness and Maura Farrelly, it seemed preordained that Charlie would find a future in drama. Charlie readily volunteers that his mother is the better actor, noting she won best supporting actress in the All Irelands in 2005. It likewise was natural for him to turn to Cornmill to present the play and to enter it in the drama festival circuit.
“The Cornmill that’s home. That’s where I first got my chance to do any acting.”
Whilst he previously directed O’Rourke in Padraic Potts, this is the first time he will oversee his own script, sharing directing responsibilities with his father, Killian. He agrees when the Celt wonders aloud how amazing it must be to see his script realised.
“It’s funny seeing some lines that you think are great but when you hear them for the first time in rehearsals you immediately go - I’ll cut them. Then there’s other lines that you put in and you’re thinking this is a bit too silly and then you see it and they’re actually really good.
“You can’t be objective about it either. So next week I have to get people in to see it because at this stage I can’t even pass judgement on it ‘cause I’m far too close to it.”
They’ve recruited a typically impressive cast - Ray Hackett, Elizabeth Doonan, Stephen Grey, Brian Reilly, Brían Murray and Sean McIntyre - that gives Cornmill a chance to further enhance their proud record of competing strongly in the All Irelands. But he notes the visual impact of this piece ie equally demanding of the production team as it is of the cast.
“I’m very lucky in Carrigallen there would be a great production team - Noel Nash making the set which is great, Seamus O’Rourke and Daniel Mimnagh are doing the sound and Philip McIntyre, lighting. Because a lot of it is production as well as the acting - hopefully it will entertain, it will definitely keep the senses going for ninety minutes - a hundred per cent because it doesn’t stop.”
What does Charlie hope for the play?
“I’d love people to come and see it. My big hope for it - you talk about the theatre goers - every play, there’s some people that won’t like it, no matter what play it is. Then there will be some people in the grey area, and then there’s people who will like it. I’d love to catch those people in the grey area. People love going, because they are great plays, to John B Keane - they’re great plays, and people enjoy them and people instantly relate - but I’d love to get a theatre goer like that and pull them into this world.”