Owen McCafferty Brings Quietly to the Lyric

The acclaimed playwright on the importance of reconciliation, the rise of racism and finally staging one of his finest plays in Belfast

First there was Mojo Mickybo, then Shoot the Crow, Closing Time, Scenes from the Big Picture and, most recently, Quietly. And a whole variety of others in between, of course.

But it is looking increasingly likely that Quietly will turn out to be a landmark, a final full stop in Owen McCafferty's flood of pithy, uncompromising plays, set in Belfast and characterised by their pungent, deceptively complex dialogue, as spoken by the working men and women of his native city.

'I don't know if this is an end of things,' McCafferty reflects, just weeks before Quietly finally makes its way to the place and political landscape which inspired it, with a run at the Lyric Theatre from April 8. 'It's a play that is linked to violence and the long-lasting consequences of it. I feel that I may have completed something.'

This powerful three-header opened in November 2012 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and featured two scaldingly affecting performances by McCafferty's long-time collaborator, Patrick O'Kane and Abbey stalwart, Declan Conlon.

Its director is Jimmy Fay, soon to become the first executive producer at the Lyric Theatre. Given McCafferty's long-standing professional association with Fay, it seems natural to enquire whether he feels the Lyric has made a wise decision.

'There's no finer man for the job,' he insists. 'He will bring a breath of fresh air to the Lyric and will put his own stamp on the place. He certainly won't be overwhelmed by the building. He won't allow the building to influence him. He will influence the building. It's a brave appointment, an imaginative appointment.'

Meanwhile, back to Quietly. One can't help but wonder why it was not premiered in Belfast. Is it, perhaps, an echo of the days when distinguished Northern Ireland writers like the late Stewart Parker, Graham Reid, Robin Glendinning and Gary Mitchell experienced the prophet-in-his-own-country treatment and could only get new work produced on stages in Dublin and across the water?

McCafferty considers carefully the premise before concluding that he has never shared that experience, not least because plays like Antigone, The Absence of Women and Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry, 1912) were given their first outings here, courtesy of Prime Cut, the Lyric and The MAC respectively.

If anything, it is financial constraints and limited funding opportunities for touring which cause McCafferty to cast his net further afield, rather than the well-worn and frequently voiced difficulties of selling new work to Northern Ireland audiences. He emphatically does not buy into the familiar mantra about local theatregoers knowing what they like, and liking what they know.

'That's the producers' argument. It's a sign that writers are not trusted as much as they should be. I really don't get it. They're just plays. OK, new plays, but we don't talk about novels like that. We look forward to new novels coming out. What's the difference?'

Quietly is a case in point. McCafferty is well known and highly regarded in the London theatre scene, and set out to write the play for no less an institution than the National Theatre on the South Bank, where he is no stranger.

'It started life as a National Theatre commission, an open commission. I wanted to write about the ripple effect of a violent act over a period of time. It was originally a bigger play, with a bigger cast. But the more I worked on the notes and thought about it, I came to realise that the reconciliation element was what was the most important and significant thing.

'It felt like that was the aspect that was so difficult to escape from, the idea of people confronting that possibility years later. Dramatically, the aftermath is more important. The pain doesn't end with the event. Gradually, the play became smaller and smaller, more closely focused, more condensed. At the end of the day, it was not a play for the National, it would not have worked on any of its stages. So I sent it to the Abbey.'

Was it a hard sell? 'It wasn't exactly a hard sell, but there was an element of risk. You have to question whether Dublin audiences are still receptive to what's going on up here. The world has moved on and we are not the centre of the universe – not that we ever were. The politicians may think we are, but we are not.

'They have their own reasons for perpetuating that notion, reasons that are tied up with votes and careers and expediency, nothing to do with what actually goes on in people's lives. I may set plays in Belfast, but in my head I am not writing specifically about here. My job is to open things up and try to convey the bigger picture, the universal stories.'

There is certainly a chilling universality about Quietly. In how many countries of the world are there a great many invisible, voiceless victims of terrible acts, people who may not have suffered physical injuries but who are condemned to carry the agony of personal tragedy on their shoulders for the rest of their lives?

 

In McCafferty's play, Jimmy, played by O'Kane, was a teenager when, in 1974, another teenager, Ian (Conlon) lobbed a petrol bomb into a Catholic bar, killing six people including Jimmy's father. We encounter the two men four decades on. Ian has come looking for Jimmy in the very same bar where he made his name as a young UVF killer.

He finds him, supping a pint and absent-mindedly watching on television the match between Northern Ireland and Poland in the company of Robert, a softly spoken Polish barman with more than enough problems of his own.

Jimmy tells Robert to keep his head down, that a man is coming to the bar to meet him and that it is likely there will be trouble. Why is Ian coming – to apologise, to explain, to unburden himself of guilt, to seek reconciliation… or for a more confrontational purpose?

'Trouble' is a fairly mild description of the emotional and psychological melt-down which will occur, as, in very different ways, the two assuage the pain they have endured over the past 40-odd years and attempt to reach some kind of understanding about what happened and why.

'Reconciliation is difficult when you don't know what is going to come from it,' observes McCafferty. 'What Ian does is massive and courageous. He has no idea what will happen when he confronts Jimmy, but these two men need to tell their stories. Hard stories. That's at the core of reconciliation. There are no guarantees that it will work, but if the play hits the right note, we will start to understand that it was enough to hear and understand each other.

'This situation is not exclusive to us here [in Northern Ireland]. This is a universal one, which is being experienced over and over in countries across the world. It does feel like the further we get from the conflict, the more obvious it is that we are really some kind of provincial backwater.

'In a practical sense, our politicians have negated their responsibility to effect reconciliation. Everyone is waiting for everyone else. So if the politicians don't or won't or can't, people have to do it themselves. Somebody has to be brave enough to make the first move. In this case, it is Ian.

'There's no sense that Jimmy has been waiting all his life for this to happen. He has never sought Ian out and probably never would have done. But many years have passed. It's important to realise that these two men were only 16 when this event happened. Now they have the chance to hear the other's story, to see how it was from the other side. It's a bit like a couple talking about adultery and hearing hard truths. If you are going to engage in the process, it's difficult but necessary.'

Quietly also touches upon a disturbingly growing blight in our midst: racism. As Terra Nova's multi-faceted production Arrivals recently showed, individual experiences of racist behaviour in Northern Ireland are many and varied.

McCafferty's barman is one of many Eastern European immigrants who have settled here and are making concerted efforts to integrate and contribute to society. Equally, like so many new arrivals, he has to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously unacceptable behaviour from local people. From a dramatist's point of view, does McCafferty view racism as the new sectarianism?

'It's not necessarily on my own immediate agenda,' he replies. 'But it's there, alright. In the wider sense of the play, you have two guys from Belfast concentrating so hard on their own problems that we don't see the problems of others. More people are coming here and we are starting to see racism creeping in.

'It is happening quietly, though. And people are dealing with it quietly. And there it is, in the title. As Jimmy and Ian go about trying to settle their differences, with the match playing away in the background, there are kids outside the bar hurling racist abuse at Robert. The stuff they are shouting may be absurd and nonsensical and uninformed, but it's there, it's in the air.

'If you live in a country where there has been, and still is, conflict, there is a kind of comfort zone in taking up an aggressive stance. It is a challenge for any human being to accept general change, especially if you don't have leaders to help you embrace that change. We have leaders who are devoid of ability; they will make sure the roads are OK and that there are enough zebra crossings, but when it comes to improving the general situation, they retreat back in.

'You never hear any of our politicians talking in terms of Europe or discussing how we can play a role in Europe. If they took a wider perspective it could inform us about the people who are coming to our shores from other European countries and help us understand them.'

While berating the efforts of the current dispensation at the Northern Ireland Assembly, McCafferty denies vehemently that he writes plays to take on the politicians. Rather, he says, 'I write about people on the periphery of society. I'm not interested in the act but in the aftermath. I'm not interested in the people who make the decisions but the people who are affected by them. I would have no interest in writing a play about politicians. There would be no emotional depth to mine.

'My focus has moved on from this place, for the moment at least. I'm writing a play for the Abbey and another, about adultery, for the Traverse in Glasgow, which will be performed at this year's Edinburgh Festival. And I'm doing a stage adaptation of Dostoevsky's short novel The Gambler.

'But let's see how this play will fare at the Lyric. It's done very well in Dublin and in Edinburgh and now it's on tour all around Ireland. Then it heads off to Germany and London. But the Lyric will be an interesting gig, alright. Let's wait and see what the reaction will be from a home crowd.'

Quietly runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from April 8 – 13.