In January of this year, an event was held in a community centre in East Belfast called Listening to Your Enemies. The Brighton bomber Patrick Magee was appearing in conversation with Jo Berry, who lost her father in that atrocity as part of the Forgiveness Project. Rioting broke out over several nights in protest at the event, with police officers injured and the centre damaged. It’s safe to say that while the Troubles may be over, Northern Ireland still has a long way to go to make peace with its collective past. In today’s news it was reported that inquests into more than 70 killings during Northern Ireland’s Troubles have still to be concluded, owing to delays that are causing anger among relatives of the dead and raising concerns about the ability of coroner’s courts to cope with the conflict’s legacy.
Owen McCafferty’s new play Quietly examines how the legacy of the Troubles is being dealt with on a personal level and what truth and reconciliation means for ordinary people who are trying to walk forward with one foot still in the past.
Quietly premiered at The Traverse Theatre last year in the Edinburgh Festival to great acclaim and thinking it wouldn’t make it to Belfast for some time, I bought a copy of the play and counted it in the 746. Thankfully I hadn’t read it before being privileged to see the original production yesterday afternoon at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Because privileged is what I was. This production left me reeling and having read the play this morning in the aftermath of that emotion, I believe this is one of the best plays to come out of Ireland in the last 10 years.
Two Belfast men in their 50’s, Jimmy (Patrick O’Kane) and Ian (Declan Conlon), have arranged to meet in a pub for the first time to talk about the events of one day in 1974, when they were both 16. On the pub television, Northern Ireland are playing Poland in a World Cup qualifier, just as they were on that day in 1974 when Ian’s actions would have devastating consequences for Jimmy and his family. Their intertwined lives have come full circle. Robert (Robert Zawadzki), the Polish barman, becomes their reluctant witness as they tell their version of what happened in alternating speeches, sometimes interrupting with bursts of anger and rebuttal but ultimately making an attempt to finally hear one another and come to some sort of acceptance of the past.
On paper, it sounds contrived, too well plotted, but McCafferty’s success is in presenting this story not simply as a microcosm of the truth and reconciliation process, but as a character study of people touched by their life experience – as we the audience are. In a recent interview with Ryan from NI Theatre he said
All I’ve ever wanted to do is tell stories about people who go unnoticed through life
This is a play of unburdening, these two unnoticed men need each other to hear their stories so they can let them go. So they can stop being either victim or perpetrator and find away to move past this defining moment. They talk and they listen and we listen. Oh how we listen. Under the taut and skilful direction of Jimmy Fay, their monologues are mesmerising, due to some outstanding acting from Patrick O’Kane and Declan Conlon, and the audience in the Lyric appeared to be collectively holding its breath, riveted by the pain and grief that many can too readily relate to.
“I’m beginning to realise that no matter which side of the conflict you’re on, had we all lived each other’s lives, we could all have done what the other did.” Jo Berry’s comments on the events that lead to the death of her father echo the point being made in Quietly. This is a play about the catharsis that can come from emotional self-evaluation, from listening and most importantly, from hearing. As Jimmy says near the end of the play
You know nothing do you – some good did
come from it – we met – we understand each other
– that’s enough
But as the lights fade towards closing time, Quietly also ends with a warning, as Robert the Polish barman discovers when his bar is pelted with stones from rioting football fans outside. That while there can be reconciliation for some, there may be no easy peace and hatred of the ‘other’ finds an outlet where it must.
Living in Northern Ireland, it’s easy to become a bit jaded by ‘Troubles’ plays, but yesterday as I wiped away tears and joined in the standing ovation for this wonderful production, I realised that we all have our stories and our hurts and we all just want to be heard, to be acknowledged.
Quietly is an outstanding acknowledgement.
If you are interested in finding out a bit more about Owen McCafferty’s work, or theatre in Northern Ireland in general, head over to Ryan T Crown’s fantastic blog http://www.nitheatre.co.uk, it’s a great resource for theatre and culture in Northern Ireland and well worth a read.
Click here to see the trailer for the Abbey Theatre production.
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