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QUIETLY – Soho Theatre, London.

Quietly, Soho Theatre, LondonOwen McCafferty’s spellbinding study of violence, truth and forgiveness has gained extra resonance since its 2012 premiere at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. In fact, its appearance at the Soho seems almost eerily appropriate, coming as it does in the wake of Gerry Adams’ arrest, renewed discussion about “the disappeared” and the long shadows of the Irish Troubles, and a growing tide of intolerance suggested by the recent (frankly alarming) European election results. 

Quietly also reaches back to football World Cup fever, with the 2009 Poland versus Northern Ireland qualifier playing on a television in the background. Polish bartender Robert and gruff local Jimmy half watch while needling one another with easy familiarity, expressing national loyalty even though Jimmy professes indifference at the outcome, and Robert has a complex relationship with his homeland.

McCafferty takes his time in setting this scene, drawing us into a naturalistic world and layering themes beneath three-dimensional characters and authentic speech. When Ian enters, braced for a potentially pugnacious meeting with Jimmy, we’re so attuned to the rhythms of the pub that we feel the atmosphere shift, a comfortable equilibrium disturbed.

Ian has come to discuss another football match back in 1974, when he and Jimmy were just 16, and an Ulster Volunteer Force bomb killed a group of local Catholics gathered in a pub on this spot to cheer on their team. One man perpetrated this shocking crime, the other witnessed the aftermath; both were deeply affected, and carry the scars to this day.

It’s a potentially sensationalist premise, prone to histrionics, or one that could be simply a didactic microcosm of a truth and reconciliation commission, so it’s to McCafferty’s credit that his piece maintains its compelling, understated realism. In a methodically paced 75 minutes, Robert acts as witness while the two adversaries exchange evocative, richly detailed life stories, from childhood scuffles to the event that changed them both, a piece of horror told with deliberate, stark candour.

There’s no sentimentalising, either in the narrations or their effect. Both men are entrenched in their views, unable to admit they could have acted differently, but they are able to listen, and to reach out across the divide for just a moment. In the context of tribal warfare, neatly echoed by the roar of a partisan football crowd, that understanding is remarkably powerful. 

Jimmy Fay directs a nuanced, almost unbearably taut production. Patrick O’Kane as Jimmy carries years of pain and anger in his coiled, menacing frame, which grows ever more rigid until he erupts in red-faced fury. Declan Conlon’s Ian, on the other hand, is wary and watchful. When he approaches a difficult moment, he slumps into himself and his voice softens and shakes imperceptibly. The study in contrasts is mesmerising.

Robert Zawadzki offers much-needed comic relief with his wry observations, and is a point of stillness between the two, although his role could have been expanded upon. McCafferty touches on his abusive upbringing and the difficulties of his current situation, but leaves them largely unexplored, as with several other elements, like Jimmy’s mysterious kneecapping. It’s the blessing and curse of his restrained approach that we are left wanting more. 

Nevertheless, this is a shattering piece that ends with a timely warning about history repeating itself in destructive cycles of bitter intolerance – McCafferty’s impassioned plea not to indoctrinate our children with hate makes it compulsory viewing. Rather than the political earthquake, let’s focus our attention on the wisdom of this quiet storm.

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Reviewed 30/05/14/

By Marianka Swain
@mkmswain

27th May – 22nd June 2014
Soho Theatre, London, W1D.

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