'Quietly' does it: a pub play with potent purity
What he decides to do is not so much to confront the horror of the Troubles as to sneak up on it, to take it unawares. The lack of drama suggested in the title is central to the approach. The first 10 minutes verge on boredom: desultory conversation between Robert and his sole customer, Jimmy, a relentlessly unglamorous international football match droning away on the unseen TV. We know something will happen: Jimmy warns that “there’s a man coming in later on to see me . . . there might be trouble”, but he tells Robert the trouble will amount to nothing more than a “bit of shouting”.
This turns out to be broadly true. If anything, even the shouting is relatively quiet. When Ian, a man the same age as Jimmy, finally arrives, he is greeted with an explosive act of violence. But the effect is to get the violence out of the way at once; the rest will be talk, most of it bitter but relatively calm. Nothing much will actually happen. What we see is, on the surface, a fairly ordinary row. But – and this is McCaffrey’s point – Northern Ireland’s ordinariness contains the unspeakable. This banal little pub has been an abattoir.
Twenty-five years previously, when there was another match on the TV, it suddenly became the gates of hell. Ian and Jimmy, both then 16, have been shaped in the most intimate ways by this blinding moment. The play’s purpose is to lead us gently towards that inferno.
It does this, in Jimmy Fay’s rigorously calibrated production, with tact, care and decency. Bathos lies in wait at every twist, but McCafferty is in complete command of the emotions he releases. He gives in neither to the sheer awfulness of the atrocity nor to a simplistic narrative of reconciliation. The apparent simplicity of the piece becomes a definite case of less is more: the creation of an uncluttered space in which horror can be given its due without overwhelming the audience.
Central to this achievement is the superb performance of Patrick O’Kane, as Jimmy. There are times when you get an actor who is completely, telepathically, in tune with the writing, to the degree that it seems hardly to be writing at all. This is one of those times. O’Kane has a way of being utterly mundane, scarcely remarkable, and at the same time rivetingly strange and broken. He carries within his body and his voice a coiled tension that he seems to have learned to live with. He becomes a plain surface that contains deep complexities: the embodiment of this surprisingly potent play.