Stage struck


In theatre we can get the whole story, says PETER CRAWLEY

At first it sounds like a sour joke. A Northern Irish man in his 50s seeks out another, a man whose life he changed forever by lobbing a bomb when they were teenagers. He has not come to apologise; just to tell his story. After an explosive introduction, the aggrieved man, Jimmy, settles with withering scorn into his part “in the truth and reconciliation process”.

One of the great strengths in Owen McCafferty’s powerful and contained drama, Quietly, which ends in the Peacock this week, is that it takes that process utterly seriously, even if its characters do not. “We have been told we are not ready for that,” Jimmy says of such conflict resolution, “not mature enough. No one is prepared to make the first move.”

As the dialogue unfolds in front of an independent observer – here a Polish bartender who works partly as a surrogate for the audience – each man explains himself in a tense collaboration (“You don’t know the start of the story. You only know the start of your fucking story”) and gradually, uncomfortably, they begin to listen. The play isn’t perfect, but it is calm and careful, and the result it hopes for actually goes deeper than repentance or forgiveness. It hopes for understanding.

Right now the stage seems just the place for such encounters. In Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm, ending this weekend at the Project, another couple are locked together in a fantasy world of assured mutual destruction. Exchanging bullets and grenades in a parody of love overtures, their septic roleplay conceals much darker real-world traumas: a lost child and a grim, haunted marriage. But, concluding right where it begins, the play suggests a purgatorial loop, from which only the truth could set them free. Not every conflict can be resolved.

Drama generally prefers it that way, because conflict is a reliable engine: without the combustion of irreconcilable differences, a plot can’t go very far. But as a place where we could rehearse political alternatives, the theatre is also sometimes prepared to make the first move.

The most extraordinary part of a current double bill from the renowned company Field Day, David Ireland’s Half a Glass of Water, imagines a meeting between a brutalised young man and his one-time abuser. Both finally talk openly about the event in the hope of averting further horrors.

The deeper message of Ireland’s play is that any kind of peace process is ongoing. In daily life we rarely get the opportunity that theatre offers to see a story concluded, to hear the other side of the story, and reconcile its truth with our own.

Back in McCafferty’s Belfast pub, Jimmy puts the matter as well as it can be put, and he could be speaking about everyone you encounter in the theatre. “We met, we understand each other, that’s enough.”

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