Saturday, April 26, 2014

Abbey Theatre, 'Quietly': When the Smoke Clears

McCafferty's play exposes the influences of violence in 1970s Belfast. But will reconciliation be that simple? 

Abbey Theatre
Apr 22-May 3

My review of Quietly by Owen McCafferty coming up after the jump ...

Does time heal all wounds? In 2014 it's easy to look around and think yes. State visits on both sides of the Irish Sea have come to symbolise peace between Ireland and the United Kingdom, and while violence is sporadic in Northern Ireland it isn't on the same scale as 15 years ago before the Good Friday Agreement. 

The shuffling of time can quietly connote progress but Owen McCafferty, a Northern Irish playwright whose work too rarely crosses the border south, shows that there is still trauma under the surface. You see, in Quietly it doesn't matter how long has passed since the escalation of violence. What matters is what age the two characters were when it did. 

The scene is a Belfast pub. A Polish bartender, when not handling text messages from various women in his life, is absorbed in a World Cup qualifier match between Poland and Northern Ireland. Enter Jimmy (Patrick O'Kane, fantastically frayed, his discomposure giving a clear sign that trouble's gonna come). A group of anti-social youngsters are loitering outside, and while Robert the barman isn't too worried Jimmy reserves caution: "Kids can do more damage than you think".

McCafferty seems to dwell an awful lot on the damn football match but what becomes clear it that it's designed to kick back to a World Cup game that Poland played in 1974, a match that was watched by 6 men in the same pub, right up until a bomb was thrown through the door and blew them away. 

Ian (a sombre Declan Conlon) was 16 years old when he delivered the explosive. As was Jimmy when his father stood at the heart of its blast. Their meeting now is fraught to say the least.

With resentment wafting over long enduring pauses, McCafferty's play manages to remain quiet yet completely combustible at the same time. O'Kane's wrought performance can drop a lit match into a powder keg at any second. Though Robert is made an unwilling witness to the exchange, the sly turn from Robert Zawadzki does a lot to sustain the piece whenever it stands still, providing a flurry of unspoken nuances and beats. It's probably the best direction yet by Jimmy Fay (whose appointment as new creative head of the Lyric Theatre, in light of his sensitivities here, seems a smart move).

Furthermore, Quietly exposes the influences of violence in 1970s Belfast. In the figure of Ian we see a youth exploited by a group of adult men, of sectarians who destroyed his future. The resulting scattershot has hit Jimmy as well, going on to live a life without a father and without reverence for the Orangemen or God. When the smoke clears, it mightn't matter how long the peace process has trod along; they were struck down when they were 16, their lives altered irrevocably. 

A simplistic vision of reconciliation isn't McCafferty's game plan. Rather it is that thumping prejudice that seeps quietly into the minds of children, creating divisions that tear a city apart, categories that mightn't be limited to 'Catholic' or 'Protestant' any more. 

There is hope in this extraordinary encounter though. Jimmy jokingly says that "if this succeeds we will be seen as the first". But with the extending of a hand, Quietly sure feels like progress. 

What did everybody else think? 

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