'Quietly' does it: a pub play with potent purity
CULTURE SHOCK:There is life in the old dog yet. At the start and the end of Quietly, Owen McCafferty’s strong new play at the Peacock, in Dublin, Robert carries on text conversations in Polish with two women. We see the texts projected on the mirrors behind the Belfast bar he is tending in 2009. The device is the only thing about the form of the play that makes it contemporary. Otherwise, it is continuous with a kind of drama that has been around for a very long time: some men in a pub; pints downed; lots of talk.
For audiences of a certain age, indeed, Quietly will bring back memories of the way the Peacock used to be in the early to mid 1980s when under its script editor, Seán McCarthy, it produced tough, well-made naturalistic plays that used vivid characters to explore social issues.
McCafferty’s slice of life, small though it is, draws on two very big changes that have happened in the meantime. Robert is Polish, acknowledging the wave of immigration to Ireland that would have been unimaginable in the 1980s. And the play’s story hinges on something else that was scarcely imaginable: the creation in Belfast of a kind of peace. Yet the very scale of these changes makes it all the more remarkable that the form of the play is virtually untouched. Everything has changed and nothing has changed.
This might be seen as a kind of failure, and there are certainly many younger “theatre-makers” who have no time for the kind of drama that Quietly is: formally simple, heavy on talk, uninterested in cleverness or experiment. The pub play is an Irish trope that begins with The Playboy of the Western World and reaches its postwar zenith in Tom Murphy’s Conversations on a Homecoming, premiered in 1985 and still, in Druid’s recent revival, red in tooth and claw. Conor McPherson’s The Weir, in 1997, arguably squeezed the last innovation from it.
Whatever virtues Quietly has, indeed, innovation is not among them. McCafferty produced his own variation on the form 10 years ago with Closing Time. In 2003 he showed his capacity to paint on a much larger canvas, in Scenes from the Big Picture, which used a pub setting but exploded it into a kaleidoscopic exploration of the city featuring 40 characters. The shift back to an enclosed bar with just three male characters looks like a distinct scaling back of ambition. Yet this is one of those truths that can be deceptive. The simplicity of Quietly can more justly be seen as classical purity. McCafferty has chosen to work within the classical unities of time, space and action. And this makes sense in relation to the play’s themes, which reflect on those of Greek tragedy: violence, vengeance, reconciliation. In fact McCafferty is being extremely ambitious, seeking to explore, within a microcosm, the legacy of atrocity.