Distinctive voice emerging from contemporary theatre in Northern Ireland
Born in Belfast in 1961, Owen McCafferty has been viewed one of the most distinctive writers currently emerging from theatre in Northern Ireland. Combining a marked interest in experimentation in theatrical form and language with strong Belfast roots, his works are typically both idiosyncratic and humane, with notable dialogue.
The playwright himself says he writes ‘in a heightened Belfast dialect … One of the things that I'm interested in is trying to create a new Belfast theatrical speak.’ This ambition has won the writer considerable interest both at home and abroad.
McCafferty’s earlier professional work was mainly, though not exclusively, produced by a succession of newly emerging, independent companies in Belfast. These include his 1994 monologue, The Waiting List, premiered by Belfast’s Point Fields Theatre Company in 1994, which addressed themes of identity and place. Freefalling, premiered by Kabosh in association with Virtual Reality in 1996, proved an exhilarating two-hander of breakneck dialogue from young people seeking escape from dead-end existences. Shoot the Crow (1997), the story of four men on the make during a typical day on a building site, was premiered by Galway based Druid theatre company, and more recently played at the Royal Exchange Studio, Manchester.
Successful as these were, McCafferty’s next work proved his major breakthrough. Set in 1970s Belfast, Mojo Mickybo allies a highly physical presentation style with McCafferty’s uncompromising Belfast ‘theatrical speak’: the result is a whirlwind theatrical adventure. Though a two-hander, the stage teems with colour and character as the actors vividly portray not only the boys, but their friends and gangs, their families, and the neighbourhood. The play has won numerous awards and has toured extensively. A film adaptation, Mickybo and Me was produced in 2004.
McCafferty’s work since has largely alternated between presentations in Belfast and London. The Royal National Theatre, where McCafferty served as Writer-on-Attachment in 1999, recently premiered two highly successful works, Closing Time (2002) as part of the National Theatre's Loft season, and Scenes from the Big Picture (2003). The former, a bleakly comedic portrait of five damned lives in a run down Belfast hotel bar, set out to tell ‘the story of those who didn’t cope, those who didn’t move on’. Deemed a potent and absorbing drama in itself, it was also viewed as a successful metaphor for Northern Ireland's political stasis. Scenes from the Big Picture, its successor, was described as recklessly ambitious. Featuring ‘24 hours. 20 characters. 40 scenes’, it was highly praised by The Observer as ‘a Belfast version of Under Milk Wood … with dreaming and embattled voices, sometimes intertwining, sometimes solely musing … This is a city of the mind’.
McCafferty’s simultaneous Belfast premiered work has been no less experimental. It includes a poetic adaptation of Ionesco’s The Chairs (Tinderbox 2003), the text of devised impressionistic drama No Place Like Home (Tinderbox 2001), exploring notions of identity, security and displacement, and Court No 1, an oblique ghost-story contributed to the Convictions project (Tinderbox 2000). Plays for radio, meanwhile, include The Elasticity of Supply and Demand and The Law of Diminishing Returns.
McCafferty’s closely observed work has sometimes been criticised for veering close to soap opera or for being oppressively dark. In the main, however, McCafferty has been praised for finding fresh ways to write about his society, producing drama which is not issue based Troubles work, but where uncertainty, violence and acute observations are nonetheless present, and which is expressed with a ‘vitriolic gift for the hurt and excitement of language’ (Sunday Times).
Most of McCafferty’s plays have been published.
© Ophelia Byrne