Quietly exploring the effects of violence

Owen McCafferty’s first Abbey commission continues some of the themes from his earlier successes, says Padraic Killeen

OWEN McCafferty first came to national prominence in the 1990s with works like Mojo Mickeybo and Shoot the Crow. The plays Closing Time and Scenes from the Big Picture have also earned him plaudits in the UK, the latter winning myriad awards after debuting at the Royal National Theatre in 2003. His new play, Quietly, begins a run this week in the Peacock in Dublin. It is the Belfast writer’s first commission for the Republic’s national theatre.

Though McCafferty is not a man for soft talk, he says the commission is a milestone for him. “In the arc of my career, if there is such a thing, that always felt as if it was missing,” he says. “Now, me saying that out loud now makes it sound like that’s something I could have easily corrected. It’s not really. Where your work goes on is a bit beyond your control. But it’s a very significant thing for me and, hopefully, the relationship continues.”

McCafferty says Quietly is in conversation with prior works, like Mojo Mickeybo, Closing Time, and Courtroom Number 1, each of which centres on the impact of an act of violence on the protagonists.

“With Quietly, it feels like, maybe, I’ve come to the end of that,” he says. “It takes another act of violence and it asks how difficult it is to seek or to get reconciliation.” The play stars Declan Conlon and Patrick O’Kane as two men united by the after-effects of that violence.

“Any one act of violence has a ripple effect and that’s what you have to deal with when you’re talking about the notion of reconciliation,” says McCafferty. “It isn’t just one thing. Time has moved on. The person you are, or the person you are talking to, has changed.”

Reconciliation is a prominent idea in Northern Ireland, where calls for an official ‘truth and reconciliation committee’ are frequently voiced. McCafferty says reconciliation demands examination and that it has become a slogan manipulated by politicians.

“The politicians bandy that word around, in a political sense, as if it were just another statistic to be used in a political argument, when, in actual fact, that whole process would take its toll and it wouldn’t be an easy thing,” he says.

“These small acts of reconciliation are very personal things and, even though they happen in the background of a normal societal day, they do need to be thought about.”

McCafferty says he has resisted getting bogged down in the familiar narratives of the conflict in the North.

“That has been done before and it’s regurgitated all the time,” McCafferty says. “It’s more that I’ve wanted to look at the effects, to look at it on a more human level.”

In subject matter and form, there has been an increasing breadth to McCafferty’s plays over the years. He has worked in devised theatre and produced the verbatim piece Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912). Yet many of McCafferty’s plays are united by recurrent motifs. He is concerned with the experience of people on the periphery.

Prevalent themes in his plays, meanwhile, are the impact of memory and the emotional life of men.

“I hate ever being described as a Belfast playwright, because it sounds very limiting,” he says. “But, maybe, one of the consequences of having come from Belfast, and having lived through conflict, is that there seems to be a recurring theme of dealing with the past in the present. Quite a few of the plays, even though they mightn’t be about politics or conflict, seem to have that theme in them.

“Quite a lot of them, as well, examine how men deal with things emotionally. I don’t think it’s enough to say that ‘men ignore things’. We all deal with things in a certain way. Now and again, I’ve tried to tap in to that language — which isn’t a code.

“Men don’t speak in fucking code. We’re not all part of MI5 or something. But I think there is a way that men talk, sometimes, that, on the surface, it does sound like nothing is happening, but if you dig deeper into it everything is happening.”

* Quietly runs at the Peacock in Dublin from Nov 14 to Dec 15

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