“Men can be full-a rage.”
Through the raised voices, pregnant silence, and tense conversation, Owen McCafferty’s Quietly, comes down to two words spoken between two men in a bar. Once said, aloud, things change for them. These men have been on a collision course for their fifty-two years on earth. McCafferty places us, as observers, at the moment of impact.
Set in Belfast where people are still wrestling with their memories and experiences of The Troubles, McCafferty takes national questions about truth and reconciliation, and makes them personal. In doing so he creates a powerful drama that extends beyond Protestants and Catholics, and into questions of how violence and hate can wound and scar people. McCafferty is interested in all the victims that violence creates—those seen and unseen. The play acknowledges that this is not necessarily a thing of the past, but potentially a cycle we are doomed to repeat.
McCafferty sets the story in an unassuming pub. Robert (Robert Zawadzki) is an immigrant from Poland who is slinging Harp behind the bar. Pub regular Jimmy (Patrick O’Kane) comes in for a pint and to mindlessly watch the football match—tonight it’s Poland vs. Northern Ireland. Because of the match, Robert is concerned about fights between Poles and locals. A pub got smashed up in the city centre earlier in the evening. Jimmy tells him not to worry but announces he is waiting for someone and there might be trouble. When Ian (Declan Conlon) finally arrives the tension in the room rises.
Jimmy, a Catholic, and Ian, a Protestant meet face-to-face and participate in what Robert calls the “national sport” of Northern Ireland — “a bit of shoutin’.” They engage in a peace process of their own devising.
McCafferty’s play is not just focused on what these men say; it’s that they say it aloud to each other that is significant. The unexpected exchange of words that results in speaking and listening to each other’s lives becomes a process of reckoning and remembrance. Recreating those memories from the past—painful, detailed, and inflected with the interim years of rumination—these men unleash things they have never said before to the most unlikely conversation partner.
Even if we intuit what their relationship is to each other and we come to anticipate what will be said, for audience and characters alike there is a release when it has all been aired. Ian tries to take their conversation somewhere private, but Jimmy insists “this should be open.” Robert becomes their witness (the audience too). The stories they are telling can no longer be held inside. They must be heard for their power to take effect.
Much of the push and pull between Jimmy and Ian becomes centered around the fact that they were both sixteen when the events between them took place. Early in the play, Jimmy says to Robert, “kids can do more damage than you think.” The kids they have been discussing are the teenagers raising a ruckus outside the bar. But Jimmy likely means Ian and himself when he says it. Despite being 52 years-old now, the spectres of Jimmy and Ian’s sixteen-year-old selves hover in this bar. These are haunted men and they both have ghosts aplenty following them.
Everything they have lived since they were sixteen has been built on the deep scar tissue of their past. The men they have become have been shaped by those events. When Ian says, “I was sixteen years of age – I’m trying to do the right thing.” He is trying to reconcile past and present at the same time and he speaks in both tenses. Who he was then is not who he is now but sixteen year-old Ian is still part of his truth and his story now.
McCafferty offers no easy answers or moralising. His characters are complex and imperfect. Jimmy is garrulous and explosive. Ian is taciturn and measured. Both convey their pain through this purging but it gets expressed in unique ways. O’Kane clutches his smooth head as if the ghosts inside him were kicking at his skull trying to get out. Lunging and pacing, he gives the impression of a wound up panther and we never know when he might strike. Conlon keeps his distance and never blinks as he observes and sips his pint. But for his physical steadiness, Ian’s pain washes over his face in waves.
I saw this production three years ago in Edinburgh and even knowing the story I found myself still in awe of the craftsmanship of the play and the intensity of the performances. Sadly, the message of the play, about the violent damage we do to each other, remains just as timely. Increasing hate crimes after the Brexit vote in the UK and the call for action from the Black Lives Matter movement in America suggests we still have not learned from these grievous lessons from the past.
Quietly is on until 11th September 2016. Click here for more information.