The play concerns three hostages sharing a cell in Beirut, but it wasn't the story of John McCarthy, Brian Keenan and Terry Anderson that triggered the piece so much as the image of 'three men chained to the wall, talking'. That, coupled with the need to knock about 'a personal obsession of mine - the warring relationship between England and Ireland. It's like a desperately unhappy marriage which is either going to go on being desperately unhappy or something is going to happen and heal it. The play exposes the wounds and continues the wounding, then comes the healing or the admission of wounding.'
McGuinness always begins a play with an image and a title, in this case There was an Englishman, an Irishman and an American, which he ditched because it was naff and chose instead Ella Fitzgerald's song, 'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me', Edward the Irishman's favourite desert island disc. And as the title changed, so did the focus of the play. The scrap between Edward and the Englishman about who was responsible for the Famine, and the American's internal struggle about what it is to be an American, gradually give way to questions concerning the most darkly troubling area in their psyches, each man's relationship with his father. 'I'm not arguing for that godawful crap Iron John nonsense book,' says McGuinness. 'That to me is just avoiding the issue by pinning the blame on women. This play says to men that they themselves are the only way forward. I think it's a fair question to ask - who was my father, why am I a son? - and it's a tough one.'
Two themes underpin much of McGuinness's work - first, that no one can escape their past, be it their father or their country's history; and second, that even darkest despair cannot suppress a deep and defiant human joy. Yet no previous play prepares you for the next. Someone Who'll Watch Over Me is a return to simplicity after an excursion into narrative complexity in Mary and Lizzie (a fantasia in which the Irish sisters Mary and Lizzie Burns become entangled with Marx and Engels in Manchester) and Carthaginians (where Londonderry finds a parallel with Carthage and the dead arise to address the living).
'I like to set myself tough tasks. The technical challenge here was to write a part for an American (played by Hugh Quarshie) and for a great classical English actor. I got him.' Michael, the Englishman, is played by Alec McCowen. 'I'm very proud of Michael,' beams McGuinness. 'He is one of those extraordinary Englishmen you want to murder after two minutes, but after 20 years you love very dearly.' He is indeed a remarkable creation. A highly articulate, rather precious widower in late middle age, fretting about his mother who will not understand why he hasn't made his Sunday phone-call.
It's no accident that McGuinness has made him a lecturer in Middle English, a subject close to his heart, having himself done an M Phil in Medieval studies (once upon a time he was fluent in Old Norse). 'These people are the cherishers of this tongue and we need them. They foster your love for the language in a healthy and non-nationalistic way. This is the great gift that this race has been given and at that time it wasn't an aggressive tongue, it wasn't an imperialist tongue. This is the childhood of the language and those people have a right to protect it. Universities have a duty to employ them.' Passionate as he is about the subject, McGuinness resists using the play as a soapbox. Rather, he lets it inform Michael's character. 'I wanted his love of the English language to be the root of Michael's Englishness.'
McGuinness conscientiously made his captives different from the real Beirut hostages, giving them different professions and ages. He had begun the play before Keenan's release, though he finished it afterwards, having met Keenan three times. 'He's a wonderfully generous man and he only asked me one thing, which was that I wouldn't let the play go on until John McCarthy was released. This play is nothing to do with Brian's life; there are parallels with what he suffered - but it isn't his story.'
Nevertheless Edward, the Irishman and a war correspondent, became the biggest challenge to the playwright. 'I had to remember that my instinctive sympathies would be with him. He's a funny as well as an aggressive character. He's the one who initiates the cracks, but he's frequently topped. That's what I had to do to curb him just a wee bit.'
While McGuinness makes Michael the guardian of the English language, he gives Edward (played by Stephen Rea) another precious part of himself. To stave off boredom, Edward puts on his Peter O'Sullevan voice and relives the final moments of the 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup, a glorious victory for the Irish mare Dawn Run. 'It comes straight from the heart. I cried when she won.' When McGuinness was a boy there were no books at home, but his grandfather, a blacksmith, had wonderful books about racing. 'I can tell you the form of horses way back into the 1940s.'
A vivid picture of McGuinness's childhood in Buncrana, Co Donegal, emerges in his play The Factory Girls; set in a shirt factory similar to the one where his mother worked, it drew on her character, and those of his aunts and grandmothers. 'They were very funny women and it's that kind of humour that I respond to. It comes from a blunt refusal to be just a number, a lowly paid worker - they're that, but that doesn't define them. Their intelligence comes out in real wit. People ask me about my theatrical background and I just say I was reared by five brilliant actresses.'
It was thanks, though, to the enlightened educational system in Ireland in the Sixties that McGuinness discovered Shakespeare ('the love of my life') at the age of 13, through Julius Caesar. Now he lectures in Shakespeare in Dublin and believes that 'it is a crime not to teach children Shakespeare from the earliest possible opportunity - and that includes primary school. He's an English writer, but he writes about the world - I think the best play that's ever been written about the Troubles in the north of Ireland is Macbeth. It's about an unambiguous evil - it's a disgrace the Irish theatre hasn't done a great production. And I don't mean with soldiers in combat dress - I mean do it and feed into our conscience, what's eating us. Dublin might deny that it's troubled, but it is troubled, it's in terror.' So why, since he is on the board of the Abbey Theatre where he is also writer-in-residence, doesn't he make it happen? 'Don't start me,' he said, laughing uproariously. 'I don't think I'd be listened to too much.'
The legacies of Shakespeare and of McGuinness's Irishness continue to feed his work. 'I'm happy to be talked about as an Irish playwright. A Catholic playwright, a male playwright, now that would be a burden. As an Irish writer we have access to European traditions of thought by reason of our theology - we have access to the two great divides between the Catholic south and the Protestant north. I have to confront the theological schizophrenia of my tradition as an Irishman - the two same Christian faiths killing each other, that's the root of it. You've got to look at it in that utterly destructive way or use it to some imaginatively constructive end. That's what I've genuinely tried to do in my work. That's what I'll go on doing.'
'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me' opens tonight, Hampstead Theatre (071- 722 3860).
FRANK McGUINNESS: A BIOGRAPHY
Born in Buncrana, Co Donegal. Lives in Dublin and lectures in Renaissance Studies at St Patrick's College, Maynooth.
He was commissioned by the Abbey Theatre to write The Factory Girls, Baglady and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. For this play, subsequently performed at Hampstead in 1986, he won the following awards - the Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright Award, an Arts Council bursary, the Rooney Prize for English Literature, the 1985 Harvey's Best Play Award, the Cheltenham Literary Prize, the Plays and Players Award 1986 for Most Promising Playwright and the London Fringe Award for Best Playwright and Best Play.
Innocence, his play about the life of Caravaggio, opened at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, in 1986. His new version of Lorca's Yerma was produced at the Abbey Theatre in 1987 and a new version of Ibsen's Rosmersholm, commissioned by the National Theatre, opened in the same week in London.
At the 1988 Dublin Festival Carthaginians and a new version of Ibsen's Peer Gynt both opened; a production of Carthaginians was staged at the Hampstead Theatre in 1989. The same year Mary and Lizzie, a commission from the Royal Shakespeare Company, opened at the Barbican.
In 1987 Ray McAnally starred in McGuinness's first television film, Scout. His second, The Hen House, was broadcast in 1989 and won the Prix de l'Intervision and the Prix de l'Art Critique at the 1990 Prague International Television Festival.
His version of Chekhov's Three Sisters, with several Cusacks in the cast, opened at the Gate in 1990 and transferred to the Royal Court in London. His play The Bread Man opened at the Gate in 1990 and his new version of the Threepenny Opera ran there last summer.
McGuinness is a member of the board of the Abbey Theatre, where he is writer-in- residence. He has just been awarded the American-Irish Literary Prize for 1992, although none of his plays has had a major production in New York, California or Chicago. McGuinness comments: 'It's an honorary Oscar - I must be dying. I'd love to see what New York actors would come up with in my work.'