Owen McCafferty Shoots the Breeze

The Belfast playwright embraces verbatim theatre, and has harsh words for 'those who play the political percentages'

Owen McCafferty is a sanguine and thoughtful figure (over the phone at least). He tries to answer all questions as fully and considerately as possible, disagrees freely and has the habit of punctuating his profundities with the odd profanity, not unlike some of his characters.

He is especially florid when it comes to talking of public funding for the arts and the artistic 'truth' in proletarian authenticity, or, as he puts it, 'to say if you're middle class that you can't write about the working class is total bullshit'.

2012 will be a busy year for McCafferty. Shoot the Crow, his ire-filled 1998 Belfast-based play about working class tilers, is about to show at the Opera House, courtesy of Prime Cut Theatre Company. And there is also the little matter of a new verbatim play about Titanic to open The MAC.

After a 14 year wait, Shoot the Crow finally made its Northern Irish debut in McCafferty's home town in 2011 (again with Prime Cut) with a successful run at the Waterfront Hall, and a Northern Irish tour followed. The themes of financial desperation, wage slavery and the peculiar, prickly dynamic of working male relationships are still as pertinent now as when McCafferty first put pen to paper.

'Until last year, Shoot the Crow had been all over the world but never in Belfast,' he muses. 'Strangely the best production I ever saw was in Tokyo. I didn't understand the language of course, but the sense of the seriousness and the comedy really came through.'

It's an interesting revelation for a writer who revels in the unravelling of the 'secret' argot of men. Their interactions and reactions to each other, where a language of bluster, abuse and even inarticulate gesture conflate into a rich, complex world of subtext. 'What men don't say as much as what they do say,' as the man himself agrees to put it.

McCafferty betrays just a little satisfaction about Shoot the Crow coming home to roost, but is a little more exited about his (and Prime Cut's) Grand Opera House debut.

'Of course, it's good to see it in Belfast. Sadly, we've come full circle since I wrote it, haven't we? The idea of being in a job you hate but can’t escape because you need the money is all too relevant. And the language of these characters, whenever I watched the play last year, thankfully didn’t seem dated at all.'

The former tile-man insists Shoot the Crow isn't autobiographical, and is dismissive generally of the notion of a kind of 'working class authenticity' to his work.

'I was a tiler, so I made these characters tilers simply out of practicality. If I’d been an electrician, that’s what the characters would have been. It’s not a profound look at the psyche of tillers, as I'm pretty sure that would mean a much smaller audience.'

As a self-confessed 'social with a small 's' writer who mainly deals with the 'now' or the recent past, McCafferty has successfully managed to avoid the big red button marked 'Troubles'.

'I've not often felt the pressure to deal directly about The Troubles,' he reflects. 'Perhaps more so in somewhere like London where if you don't write about it, they somehow think you're running away from it.

'In a play like Mojo Mickeybo, for example, I did look at sectarianism and its effects, but for me people continue to get on with the business of living, even in troubled times. I set Shoot the Crow in Belfast about the time of the Peace Process. That’s all good, but life goes on in spite of these big events. People are so much more than just one thing.'

Time and again in his plays, whether dealing with the widescreen sweep of Scenes from a Big Picture or the essay of awkward XY intimacy that is The Absence of Women, McCafferty elevates the 'ordinary' individual into startling bas-relief against their surrounding social context.

He does so in a way that is every bit as profound as any reheated melodramatic narrative that fetishises, simplifies or befuddles The Troubles.

'I do have a political attitude to bring, but for me it's very much wrapped up in the personal,' McCafferty explains. 'There is an anger in Shoot the Crow, yes. Working men and women are being kept in their place thanks to the money they’re being paid. And that's a great reason to get angry, isn't it?'

McCafferty has become celebrated as a writer of dialogue both lyrical and musical. Witness the bawdy, free-flowing febrile exchanges between characters in Shoot the Crow or down and outs Iggy and Gerry in The Absence of Women and you get a sense of spontaneous inspired outpouring from the writer, rather than carefully crafted and honed line and counter line.

'Well it would be wrong to say I sit down and boke up onto the page,' McCafferty agrees. 'I do plan scenes and situations in advance of course, but the characters exchanges have to flow naturally as I write them. Or rewrite them.

‘I suppose my dialogue has a certain musical quality. The rhythm of language has to be right for me. I set my adaptation of Days of Wine and Roses originally in America – like the play and film, it was San Francisco I think. But it wasn't working for me. The characters didn't sound quite right. So I brought it back to Belfast. It's not a Belfast play, but that language and flow sounded right to me.'

What will be unavoidably Belfast-centric is McCaffery's next play about the most celebrated shipping disaster of them all. Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912) is the playwright's first ever verbatim work and marks the opening of the much heralded MAC arts facility in Belfast.

Cynical allusions to hitting economic icebergs aside, it seems to be one of the more sobering, dramatic and sensitive pieces of art that will spring up on the gaudy 2012 Titanic tourist trail. The play is based around the inquiry that took place in London, two months after the ship sank.

'It was much like the Levinson enquiry,' explains McCafferty. 'Lawyers questions drive it along. For me as a playwright the challenge was to decide what I wanted to include and what I didn't. I'm much more interested in the small forensic detail, the human story of the thing.

‘Everybody knows what happened, but the appeal is to see just how it happened. I tried to find a line through it all and hope I captured the flow of a story. A before, a during, and an after.'

In the process he has perhaps fashioned the first shipping-disaster related 'howdunnit'. McCafferty was formerly cynical about the value of verbatim theatre but confesses that his Titanic experience has caused him to look more favourably on the social worth of this now-fashionable theatrical concept.

'I may have been one of those who was unconvinced about verbatim theatre, especially the ones that come out so quickly after the story has been on the news (Gillian Slovo's recent The Riots springs to mind), but I’ve realised that they do serve a purpose.

‘Having testimonies dramatised on stage takes them out of the newsroom and gives them an immediacy and a space to speak, away from the lies often. For me with the Titanic, it was a chance to show the span of all human life on that ship.

‘Courage, human frailty, acts of cowardice – it was all there. Plus you have to remember that if this inquiry were held today, these people would be getting counselling. What happened was hugely traumatic, nearly 1,500 people dead.'

McCafferty seems faintly bemused by the overall Titanic fuss though. 'Well, we looked around and didn’t have anything else really didn't we?' he says when asked what he thinks the regional obsession with the great disaster is.

'Peace came and people looked for something to hang on to beyond conflict. People always do that, wherever they are. Plus, we always remember the one that lost don't we? It’s like race horses. We always want to know about the ones that nearly won but fell. It remains to be seen, after all the preparations, whether people now come to Belfast to see where we built our ships,' he diplomatically adds.

McCafferty is much more enthusiastic about the fortunes of The MAC and the principle of building.

'Anything that means more arts in Belfast is hugely productive,' McCafferty argues. 'I can’t think why it’s ever a bad thing to build museums, theatres, galleries. We are way too insular sometimes. We want people to come and see where we live, but then pass our culture off as just bands and marching up and down or whatever.

'There has to be a recognition that art is vital to our society. You don’t plonk people in a city centre and then have nothing to show them. As artists it’s a constant battle all the time against the argument that it’s either theatre or operations. What a ridiculous point!

'To even frame it in that way is ridiculous. It isn’t like for like. We need both those elements in a good healthy society. And what is the point of making people healthy if you have nothing else for them?'

Shoot the Crow begins its run in the Grand Opera House on March 6, and tours across Ireland thereafter. Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912) runs in The MAC from April 20-22.

Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry, 1912)