Quietly

Owen McCafferty's new play, premiered in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, explores 'the hurt, the carnage and the consequences' of the Troubles

Owen McCafferty's new play, Quietly, is about the limits of healing, the lottery of bearing witness, but also the profit of truth.

Set in a small back street bar in the Ormeau Road area of Belfast, Quietly sounds an echo of plays such as The Weir or Conversations on a Homecoming, with men meeting, drinking, and attempting to gain control over scattered lives by telling their story.

This story is what happened both in the bar in particular in 1974, but also what happened in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the late 90s. The hurt, the carnage and the consequences.

Jimmy (Patrick O'Kane) enters his local and sits drinking Harp while discussing the Poland vs Northern Ireland match, which is playing in Windsor Park that night. They watch it on TV, while Robert (Robert Zawadzki) grapples with two competing women in his life, his cagey bi-lingual text messages being displayed on the mirrors behind the bar.

After the usual good natured slagging, Jimmy tells Robert that 'there's a man coming in later on to see me... there might be a bit of trouble with him'. That man is Ian, and his entrance begins the real business of the play.

The two men were 16 on July 3, 1974 when Ian's actions on that night would change each man's life utterly. Ian has requested to meet Jimmy, the first in a long line of victims, whose names he can recite as a well worn incantation, that he must talk with in an attempt to end his 'dislocation'.

Six people were killed in the bar in 1974, and those actions have had long consequences for Jimmy. They also had consequences for Ian, as we learn. He has come to the bar to explain, to give context to what he did, to reach out for something, and to risk.

Owen McCafferty is Northern Ireland leading playwright, and in his hands this quiet story of our times becomes an electric piece of theatre. His control of language is brilliant, as is his ear for the nuances of what we say.

His achievement is aided by tremendous acting. Patrick O'Kane builds Jimmy piece by piece, creating a complex human, filled with grief and anger but laced with surprising understanding.

In counterpoint, the more languid Ian (Declan Conlan), desperately holds onto his humanity, even as the killer of six people. Their monologues and interplay are magnetic, forcing both the other man and the audience to listen properly to their confessions and memories.

These characters in McCafferty's hands are not merely ciphers, representing this side or that side: they are what we in the audience are, people touched by life. At times the grief and pain is articulated with such accuracy that you can sense the air being pushed out of the audience's lungs in empathy.

The discussion ranges across time and memory, with each character gradually realising that in the other lies some kind of healing, or at least a direction out. McCafferty doesn't take us for fools though and the ending of the play is both bleak and hopeful.

Jimmy and Ian tell their stories, but this is not the beginning of a beautiful friendship. As Jimmy points out, this is not the 'warrior-respect' of an ex-paramilitary away day, but rather a human level of understanding is reached. They return to their lives.

Robert's Polish identity gives him observer status in this old argument. For a large section of the play, his presence is as an unspeaking witness at the edge of Ian and Jimmy's drama. He merely watches the match with one eye on the two men. It is at the end of the play that Robert's importance to what McCafferty is trying to say becomes clear.

With the two men now gone, hoods from the surrounding area begin to stone the bar, calling out the 'Polish bastard', in an echo of Jimmy and Ian's speaking of orange and fenian bastards earlier. On the streets, hatred renews itself and finds new targets.

With the seemingly eternal fudging of the issue of truth and reconciliation since the signing of the Good Friday agreement, and the tension over whether society should look back or look forward, it takes a playwright as good as McCafferty to tease out the issue with such tact, clarity and compassion.

That he meets the challenge shows bravery and confidence in the precision of his language and the breadth and complexity of his characters. The Troubles, or the Conflict, whichever you prefer, still reaches us all every day. Quietly is indeed a play for our times.

Quietly runs in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin until December 15, 2012.

Quietly