Frank McGuinness' latest play, Gates of Gold, is inspired by the life of the founders of the Gate Theatre, Michael MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards. MacLiammoir's performance of his one man show, The Importance of Being Oscar, in a hotel in Buncranna 30 years ago was what set the playwright's head ticking towards the theatre. The recital by Hilton Edwards at MacLiammoir's graveside of Shakespeare's Fear No The Heat O' The Sun ignited the spark in McGuinness' head that would eventually kindle into Gates of Gold.
It's entirely fitting that one of Britain's finest and longest serving actors of his generation, Alan Howard, should play Gabriel, ostensibly the MacLiammoir character in Gates of Gold. (Howard is also the voice of the ring in the blockbuster movie The Lord of the Rings.)
Born in 1937, Alan Howard is the fifth generation of actors in his family. Like MacLiammoir and Edwards did in their time, he epitomises all that's good, professional and devoted in the realm of the stage. He is the living embodiment of a lifelong love affair with the theatre..
"Gabriel is on his deathbed," begins Howard, who echoes McGuinness' assertion that Gates of Gold is not literally a biographical work about MacLiammoir and Edwards, a docudrama nor a history of the Gate Theatre but primarily a work of the imagination and of fiction.
"He has bowel cancer and has suffered an aneurysm. His life-long lover, friend, theatre director and co-theatre founder Conrad struggles to deal with his partner's demise. Only one nurse survives longer than five minutes taking care of Gabriel. She is there to prepare Gabriel for death. Like Gabriel, she is in denial about her life at that moment.
"Yes, the imminence of Gabriel's inevitable death crystallises the relationship between the two men. Gabriel is the elements of fire and air, the creative spirit. Conrad is earth and water. He is the architect and the nuts and bolts. Gabriel is the imagination that fires it all, the word inside the tabernacle created by Conrad. It's possible to suggest that this was also the relationship between MacLiammoir and Edwards, too. McGuinness shows the deep love between his two homosexual characters. But, Gates of Gold is also about the theatre and all the arts of fiction-making."
By the manner in which Alan Howard talks of Gates of Gold, it's obvious that he has already come through a journey of his own in the play. He regrets that he never met MacLiammoir and Edwards and only ever saw them perform in old film clips. He has read the definitive biography, though. Christopher Fitz-Simon's The Boys. According to Howard, MacLiammoir and Edwards were Edwardian in the manner by which they acted on and off the stage. The modern actor, he suggests, prefers to leave his performances for the stage only.
"McGuinness has also used the play as an examination of the theatre and fiction making in general," continues Howard.
"There is a strong emphasis on the notion of belief and the verb to believe. It's suggested that there is no higher affirmation of another person, for example, than to tell him or her that you believe in them. Believing in the other seems stronger, deeper, less ephemeral than telling a person that you love him or her. There's also a line by Gabriel in the play where he says, "I became an actor because I believe in the lies". To believe in someone or something is the most total form of acceptance.
"Gates of Gold plays a lot with the question of belief and what is true or not. There's this idea that one man's truth is another man's lie. Of course, in a sense when we go see a play or a film or read a book, we are always involved somehow in believing a lie. But there is a point at which the lie may actually be true. To be believed in by someone else is something to be divinely wished.
"Art shares this hope, if you like. There's also a sense that, however much Gabriel and Conrad say it was all for nothing, it is worthwhile and it will be remembered."
Irish Examiner, 5.5.02.