Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Troubles play is for real with no buddy-buddy end

Owen McCafferty

KIDS can do more damage than you think," says Jimmy to the barman, an innocuous enough observation in normal circumstances. Jimmy and Robert, from Poland, are watching Northern Ireland play Poland in the 2009 World Cup qualifier at Windsor.

Jimmy is less than fanatical. On balance, he says towards the end, when the action is over: "If I had a choice, I'd rather Northern Ireland won than Poland. It would make no sense me wanting Poland to win."

Jimmy is waiting for a man he's arranged to see. They share an involvement in something that happened when they were kids. Jimmy doesn't particularly want to see him, but Ian wanted to talk and he's agreed. He headbutts Ian the instant he enters.

This is about two men who were on opposites on what it has become politically correct, peace process-wise, to call "the conflict", defining 3,500 dead and the tens – maybe hundreds – of thousands still sometimes shuddering from the after-effect not as victims of terrorism nor of efforts to extirpate terrorism nor yet again of a war of liberation, but of "the conflict", a word that ascribes no blame, or need for guilt, to any set of combatants. There's another useful term: combatant.

Actually, Jimmy wasn't on either side, not in the sense of being involved, and neither was his father, but they were/are perceived as being, as everyone is, because how are we to be reconciled if we weren't/aren't on either side?

Among the most sectarian events in Northern Ireland in these post-Agreement days are gatherings devoted to reconciliation. If you are not one, or the other, what's the point of your presence?

"Quietly" isn't about that sort of thing. Back when they were both 16, a junior member of the UVF tossed a bomb into the bar where they are now standing and blew six men watching a football match to bits – Poland versus Brazil, 1974 third-place play-off. Jimmy remembers the result, one-nil to the Poles. He remembers his mother running up the street after hearing the explosion and seeing his father's trouser leg in the debris with a leg still in it.

Owen McCafferty's play captures the inner turmoil, the tension, the remembered horror, the continuous present in which the Troubles are set more viscerally and accurately than anything else put on a stage.

A play about Belfast with no time for love, a riveting, relentless portrayal of that will see the inside for long enough later. It opens in an Abbey production at the Lyric for a six-day run next Tuesday.

Jimmy is played by Patrick O'Kane, character pinned down exact, intimations of threat eddying around him, empty eyes that yet can pierce. "Just say what happened... isn't that why you're here, to tell the truth and be reconciled?"

But that's not what it's about for Ian: "There's more to truth than facts – I didn't just decide to do what I did there and then. I had lived a life up to that point."

"I don't need an explanation – I get it. We were – are – Fenian b******* ... I know that because 20,000 Protestants marched by the top of our street ... 20,000 people, screaming Fenian b******* ... this isn't about why – this is about admitting it, here, now."

Ian pleads: "If there's a picture you have in your head of me, make sure it's when I was 16."

These aren't two guys sharing a mic at a reconciliation shindig in the Europa, half the audience academics and half of these from the United States, explaining that just a few years ago each would have done the other in, but that now they are journeying together on the path of peace.

"Quietly" is for real, a reality that's jagged and always with potential for a spark to ignite new conflagration, the scary reality we live in that those who endured and inflicted the worst might strive to understand, but know they'll never put behind them. No denouement here to draw applause and send all home happy.

Ian is played by Declan Conlon, the most difficult of parts, like Ian's shambling effort to tell his story in a way that doesn't define him by reference only to murder, wonderfully, understatedly realised. Polish actor Robert Zawadzki gives a perfectly nuanced portrayal of barman Robert, required to maintain a stillness amidst the heavy swirl of recrimination.

It ends with a gesture, and from Jimmy: "We met, we understand each other, that's enough."

Nothing buddy-buddy. "Don't ever come back here."

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