Shoot the Crow
Owen McCafferty's play 'strikes afresh with recharged resonance in straitened times'
Prime Cut's reprisal of Owen McCafferty's Shoot the Crow marks the company’s initiation to the Grand Opera House stage. It is also its 20th year at the forefront of compelling, politically engaged drama in Northern Ireland.
This tale of four Belfast tilers – which made McCafferty's name – is perhaps not as politically provocative as other recent works tackled by Prime Cut artistic director Emma Jordan. Nevertheless, McCafferty's play is both harrowing and hilarious, a tragi-comedy that speaks to and about the fabled 'everyman'. It's a political play with a small ‘p’.
That is the elusive key to Shoot The Crow's longevity. Corners of the audience convulse with unfettered laughter throughout, but the play's subject matter strikes afresh with recharged resonance in straitened times.
The credit crisis is the new Troubles – a story for our time; the ubiquitous contagion of the western world cocooned in the crumbling edifice of panoramic windows, with our workmen balancing in the wings.
It is a working day in the life of the archetypal figures of Ding Ding (Walter McMonagle) work-wearily putting in his last day of labour; Randolph (Packy Lee) bearing the brunt of the frustrations of his older workmates; Socrates (Marty Maguire) in the throes of existential crisis; and head-honcho Petesey (Paddy Jenkins).
As the men desperately and vainly conceive multiple ruses to steal spare tiles to get a few more ‘reddies’, the ensuing, brilliantly executed, farce, serves as a morose mirror to their plight and frustrations. The four workers are acutely aware that they are mere cogs in the machine.
Petesey exclaims ‘Personal? Did he ever invite you up to his house? No. Do you ever go out for a swally with him? No... He’s a business man, and we graft for him. Nothing personal about that.’ None of Marx’s theories protesting the proletariat is largely unaware of their systematic exploitation apply here. They know. Only too well.
At once poetic and staunchly vernacular, it is McCafferty’s rich dialogue that enthralls. Ready expletives punctuate the script, and much of the talk serves no real plot progression (at times the 'action' borders on tedium). Instead the hard-edged dialogue echoes the frustration that is never far from bubbling over, either into splenetic attacks on each other or through some cathartic, witty banter.
Language takes on the same futile circuits the men experience everyday, collapsing in on itself until communication becomes a near impossibility. (Ding Ding defaults to football when the going gets tough.)
At times, Socrates’ seemingly incongruous lofty philosophising leaves speech and archetype in discord – McCafferty operates symbolically rather than naturalistically, which risks the characters becoming mouthpieces. Yet the individuals are so intricately drawn and so impeccably brought to life by this stellar cast through their various debacles.
One of my favourite scenes emerges from the ‘spirit of openness’ proffering the opportunity to let loose their mutual hatred – hell is other people, but it is also the stuff of colourful camaraderie, nostalgic yarns, clever banter and, in the end, fierce loyalty.