'Quietly' does it: a pub play with potent purity

Sat, Nov 24, 2012, 00:00

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.

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.

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