Owen McCafferty

'Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.' Peter Jordan meets the award-winning playwright.

Owen McCafferty’s highly anticipated new play The Absence of Women is currently running at the Elmwood Hall, in Belfast, where the Lyric Theatre has taken up residence until the opening of its new theatre in 2011.

Ian McElhinney and Karl Johnson head the cast as Gerry and Iggy, two labourers from Belfast who face the end of their lives in a London hostel talking of the present and thinking of the past. They argue about who has the biggest liver, the names of tube stations and whether they should go back to Belfast or not.

As they drift from present concerns to remembering the past, we catch a heartrending glimpse of what might have been.

McCafferty has been described as the first truly great playwright of Northern Ireland to go beyond the cliches of political writing to document the lives of ordinary men and women of his native town. His CV is impressive, with plays including Shoot The Crow, No Place Like Home, Closing Time, Mojo Mickybo, Scenes From The Big Picture and Days of Wine and Roses.

Scenes from the Big Picture earned him the John Whiting Award, the Evening Standard's Charles Wintour Award for New Playwriting and the Meyer-Whitworth Award, the first time any playwright had won all three awards in one year. Yet he has always kept his feet firmly on the ground. At the time he received the awards in 2004, her merely commented: “Pretty soon somebody else will be flavour of the month.”

McCafferty’s work since has largely alternated between presentations in Belfast and London. Combining a marked interest in experimentation in theatrical form and language with strong Belfast roots, his works are typically both deeply personal and humane. It could be argued that McCafferty is the first playwright to create an authentic poetry out of the Belfast dialect to rival that of O'Casey and Synge.

McCafferty has been praised for finding fresh ways to write about Belfast society, producing drama which is not based on the Troubles, but where uncertainty, brutality and a keen study of his subject matter are nonetheless present.

I caught up with him between rehearsals to ask a few questions. He said that he was happy to oblige as long as he didn’t have to answer anything directly about the play itself.

What about the Arts in Northern Ireland, do you think that it is in good health?

’The Arts are never well funded because the powers that be don't see it as an important vibrant and influential part of society. Art has always been mistrusted here; also it isn't seen as important because it isn't a vote winner. In fact, it could nearly be seen as a vote loser.

’Theatre has always struggled here and will continue to do so. That doesn't mean there aren't people out there doing good work, there are, it's just that serious theatre here has always been a hard sell. If it isn't a laugh most people don't want to know - which they’re entitled to do by the way.’

Has your writing changed over the years?

’Hopefully it has got better - I also think that I use less words than I used to.’

I know you love the work of short story writer Raymond Carver, but can you tell me who you are influenced by?

I don't really know how to answer this … I haven't ever really thought I was influenced by anyone; although I'm sure there are others who would read or see my work and disagree. I know this sounds very general and weak but in some way I am influenced by everything.’

Any future plans?

’I'm in the process of writing a new play for the National Theatre - after that I'm working on a devised piece with the American director Michael Lessac.

Years ago I asked Owen if he had any tips for aspiring playwrights. He thought about it and said: ‘Immerse yourself in your field.’

But I thought that it wasn’t enough so I asked him, ‘Anything else?’

’Yeah,’ he said at the time, ‘Sit down on a seat and write.’

So I ask him how writing is for him now, years later, when he appears to have cracked it. He smiles and quotes the American dramatist Gene Fowler.

’Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.’

The Absence of Women can be seen in the Lyric Theatre's temporary home at Elmwood Hall from February 8 to February 27.