The Absence of Women

David Lewis thinks Owen McCafferty's latest play a 'perfectly formed, mini-masterpiece'

Owen McCafferty is a playwright of the missing and the missed, the silent and the dispossessed. As a chronicler of Belfast, he has got under the pocked skin of his home city and created works of literature, of art, that compare with few other writers, a handful of early Brian Moore novels aside.

As in much of McCafferty’s work, alcohol and Belfast are the twin gods in The Absence of Women, hanging over everything, all powerful, vengeful, and destructive. The former can’t be avoided, the latter can’t be escaped. Belfast casts McCafferty’s characters in iron. The painful, early lessons the city teaches, play out throughout his characters’ lives. No matter where they go, they are always trapped in Belfast’s dark streets and narrow mindsets.

As for Belfast men and ‘the drink’. They go together like bacon and eggs, Harland & Wolff, Benson & Hedges. Belfast men don’t speak. Belfast men don’t dance. They drink.

Karl JohnsonGerry (Karl Johnson) and Iggy (Ian McElhinney) are two derelicts waiting out time at the end of their lives in a London hostel. Sober for once, they drink tea endlessly and shovel around the heaps of regret. There is banter but little bullshit. What would be the point of that now? For the first time in their lives they are really talking.

Combative to the death, they boast of who is most damaged by the drink, who has drunk in the most pubs, who has had the most dangerous job. What else do career alcoholics have to take pride in? They recognise their near marital status.

‘i’m the quiet one,’ muses Iggy.
‘are we a couple now,’ retorts Gerry. ‘has something happened that i missed – was there a ceremony’

The exchanges are often coarse and mordantly funny (it takes skill to get a laugh out of a simple ‘fuck you’), at times smacking of Beckett.

Gerry: 'is this tea different from yesterday'
Iggy: 'everythin’s different from yesterday'
Gerry: 'nothin’s different from yesterday'
Iggy: 'except the tea'

Yet the play is rooted in the reality of a generation of Irishmen who went where the work took them, all around England, from one kip to the next, on the roads and railways, digging the Underground, being ripped off by Irish builders, drinking in pubs with Irish names. The Irish navvy in McCafferty’s account is one short step up from indentured labour, the point of work not to earn money but ‘drinks vouchers’. Irishmen like Gerry and Iggy are legion.

And now the race is almost run, the regrets flow like the pints once did. Where lies meaning? The roads and tunnels they built have led everywhere and nowhere. Thoughts and memories twist and torture. Gerry is fixated on a girl at a dance, an opportunity spurned, Iggy on boyhood recollections, of boxing, of a broken friendship and scarring secret.

The set is fractured, the characters' thoughts occurring literally, and effectively, on different planes. The walls are grimy, soot-stained. Steam rises from a large tea urn in the background, purgatorial vapours. At the back of the stage a black, empty doorway beckons.

Rachel O’Riordan’s subtle direction lets McCafferty’s words do the talking, which is exactly how it Ian McElhinneyshould be. On the page McCafferty’s writing is broken up with dashes and uses little punctuation. The language is the antithesis of flowery, the words coined, precise, surrounded by silence.

In an extraordinary passage, Dotty (a pitch-perfect Alice O’Connell) tells the tale of what could have been. These are Gerry’s thoughts, his sputter of consciousness, voiced through a woman he once met in a bar, who once asked him to dance. The effect is dazzling.

‘one dance – what that dance could’ve led to – what was on offer – maybe everything – maybe everything all the time – making you sandwiches the way you like them – knowing how tired you are – wearing a dress you like – my smell – my walk – my body – to lie together and not speak because there is no need – to feel me shiver – to know why you hate yerself’

Gerry’s wasted life is all the more believable for having no easy explanation beyond the fact that ‘Belfast taught me not to talk’. The reason for Iggy’s anger and unwillingness to return home is perhaps a bit too neat, yet the truth of it can’t be denied. If Belfast is intolerant now, God knows what it was like back in the 50s and 60s.

‘people don’t change – it was a small place full a small people when I left it – that won’t have changed’

Karl Johnson, a Welsh-born actor, gives a tour-de-force, one moment an empty-eyed deadbeat, the next a contrary, irrepressible dreamer. It’s ironic that actually being from Belfast may be more of a hindrance than help in performing McCafferty’s work. There’s nothing wrong with Ian McElhinney’s performance, far from it, but it’s almost too Belfast, too real. Perhaps actors from outside have less baggage, more scope to access the universal over the parochial.

It’s a trick that McCafferty also manages to pull off. The play is about Belfast but not about Belfast. The characters haven’t been back in years, the city has changed, moved on. It’s a construct of their imaginations, a fictional Erewhon.

The Absence of Women‘nowhere – I belong nowhere – and so do you – you have no one and you belong nowhere – that’s it – that’s who we are’

For all the bleakness, there is huge morality in McCafferty’s work. The Absence of Women is unsentimental yet has a generosity of spirit and surprising warmth. He makes us sympathise with, on the surface, the most unsympathetic of characters and to accept that for some the choices are made for them.

The play’s finale is as simple as it is stunning. Back on the drink, on the street, inevitably, Gerry gives a mumbling summation of what has gone before, a confusion of thoughts and memories, a fitting eulogy/epitaph for Iggy. The simple device of reciting street names in alphabetical order, streets that could be in London or Belfast, is unbearably moving. It is great literature, Pound’s ‘language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree’.

We have seen these themes in McCafferty’s work before – the catastrophic, irresistible power of alcohol, the lives of Belfast working men – but never to such effect. Like a painter of miniatures, by employing a smaller canvas, McCafferty has freed himself from the restrictions of large scale. The Absence of Women is a perfectly formed, mini-masterpiece.

David Lewis

PS One small niggle, and only worth mentioning in that it took my thoughts elsewhere while watching. Did anyone else notice Iggy’s inappropriate jewellery? A down-and-out with a gleaming wedding ring?

The Absence of Women is showing at the Elmwood Hall until February 27 before going on tour across Northern Ireland. Click here for further details.