Owen McCafferty expertly confronts themes of truth and reconciliation at the Lyric Theatre
Owen McCafferty’s thesis is simple: Northern Ireland’s politicians have failed, utterly failed, to deal with the past. This does not, however, prevent individuals from pursuing their own odysseys of truth and reconciliation. They are going about it quietly.
This play begins innocuously, with Polish barman Robert (Robert Zawadzki) watching Northern Ireland vs. Poland, a real football international played in March 2009. He is joined in the bar by Jimmy (Patrick O’Kane), who has lived in Belfast his whole life and ambles with a gait which leads Robert to crack that he must have been ‘useless’ at the sport they’re watching. Harmless enough pub banter.
Then in walks Ian (Declan Conlon), who is there to begin the proceedings. The only discordant note of Quietly occurs at this point, as Jimmy flattens Ian with a head-butt. Whether it’s Martin Lynch’s recent The Meeting at Menin Gate or Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt duking it out in Five Minutes of Heaven, there seems to be an unfortunate inevitability of violence in post-Troubles dramas.
Are victims nothing if not defined by their lack of a violent response? Is this not, in part, what makes them victims? (Some members of the opening night audience, incidentally, react to this moment with laughter – people have their own way of dealing with these things.)
We discover Ian – a former Loyalist paramilitary – was responsible, one July evening in 1974, for bombing a bar and killing six people inside, including Jimmy’s father. They were watching the World Cup on television. ‘Men go out for a pint an’ they end up blown up or shot,' Jimmy reminds us of Belfast back then. Ian protests that they were both 16-years-old at the time, but Jimmy will hear nothing of the equation.
But Quietly is too unpredictable and thoughtful to be some kind of battle-of-wits. As Jimmy and Ian piece together what happened all those years ago, Robert hovers in the background. We wonder, why is this man here?
He is, in answer, the honest broker: neutral, independent witness to this microcosm of truth and reconciliation. ‘No point in it just being me and him,' Jimmy explains. ‘Has to be someone else there to pass the story on.'
In this way the audience resembles Robert as the other member of the Commission, just listening. Except he is also the international voice missing from the back of almost every Northerner’s head. ‘This place doesn’t know the rest of the world exists,' Robert jokes early on. At the time, he is ostensibly talking about football, but McCafferty has a wider view.
In a performance of extraordinary energy and desperation, O’Kane unleashes rage in taut bursts, balancing it with a cerebral reflection that is altogether unique. This is a man ruled by his emotions, trying to make sense of a past he could do nothing to control.
Almost as good is Conlon, whose understated presence can never really compete with Jimmy’s eruptions. As perpetrator, this is the harder of the two main roles – yet this, too, is a performance that matures and is suitably pitched.
An initial criticism of Quietly on its 2012 Dublin premiere at the Abbey Theatre was its lack of a female perspective. McCafferty has replied in interviews that he has always written about women ‘through men’, and the story of how Jimmy’s mother ‘let grief and loneliness consume her’ feels now like the play’s most devastating juncture.
We hear of a woman unable to come to terms with ‘having someone you love taken away from you for no reason that you truly understand’. The fall-out from acts of violence obliterates women as completely as the men caught up in the incidents. For this reason, there will be no bonhomie; no embracing the past away. There will be understanding, but also Jimmy’s, ‘Don’t ever come back here.’
Quietly started in the Abbey’s Peacock Theatre, but has finally arrived in the city where it most needs to be seen. As it closes with a gang of unseen youths directing their young hatred against Robert, the last man standing, it is impossible not to be reminded of the scenes in June 2009, not too far away from this Belfast theatre, where Roma were attacked and forced from their homes by assailants unknown. We are back again, as if in cycle, with intolerance re-directed to another group.
There are faint echoes of great Irish plays by Tom Murphy here but, in truth, we have never received a play like Quietly before. It is on the level of the great international plays – it confronts themes and concepts in a way that Northern Irish politicians have yet to live up to.
There is a sense that Belfast needs this play, needs something or someone to convey what our politicians cannot achieve, imagine that scene and give it meaning. It is our great privilege that Owen McCafferty is able to do just that.
Quietly runs in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until April 13.