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‘Quietly’ at the Edinburgh Fringe

Rosie Lavan

Jimmy Fay Dir.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Traverse Theatre
1 to 25 August 2013

After an acclaimed premiere in Dublin in November 2012, the Abbey Theatre production of Owen McCafferty’s Quietly enjoyed success at the Edinburgh Fringe last month: along with universal critical plaudits, it won one of the Scotsman’s coveted Fringe First awards for new writing. The acting and direction were faultless and in those respects the celebration is quite understandable, but—for this reviewer at least—the award-winning writing fell short.

Quietly is a story of truth and reconciliation in post-conflict Northern Ireland, scaled down to a meeting between two men, Jimmy (Patrick O’Kane) and Ian (Declan Conlon). It is a tightly concentrated piece: seventy-five minutes, three characters, one act. All the action takes place in a bar manned by the third character, Robert (Robert Zawadzki). It is Jimmy’s local and when he arrives Robert has the television on for the Northern Ireland-Poland match—Robert, we learn, has moved to Belfast from Poland. Jimmy’s knowledge of a much earlier meeting between the national teams, in 1974, is surprisingly precise for a man who claims to take no interest in football. Gradually we realise that what happened on the date of the earlier match has never left him, and that that’s the reason why he is waiting for someone tonight, and why he has warned Robert that there might be trouble. Ian arrives and by this point it becomes possible to predict the story before it unfolds itself. Jimmy is Catholic and Ian is Protestant and both were 16 in 1974. As a young member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, Ian threw a bomb into the pub in which they are standing and killed everybody inside, including Jimmy’s father, who was watching that Northern Ireland-Poland match with his friends. Now Jimmy has sought this confrontation. On the fringes of the main plot we are invited to consider the evolution of intolerance in Belfast and the play ends with Robert cautiously locking up the pub as Northern Ireland fans outside are heard to shout anti-Polish abuse.

If this seems anti-climactic, it was. This chain of events, which sets up the action – such as it is – in this dialogue-heavy play, is fine but limited. The story is too tidy, and too carefully balanced. It is laudably realist—there are no gratuitous twists or leaps beyond the credible—but some aspects are left frustratingly unfulfilled. The dialogue is composed of the exchange of Ian and Jimmy’s life stories, which each edits because of the other’s presence. But there are things unsaid which the audience wants to know. For example, we learn that Jimmy was, at some point in his youth, subject to a kneecapping, the traditional paramilitary punishment: the inference seems to be that the loss of his father under such sectarian circumstances prompted him to abandon his academic promise and join the IRA. But it is not clear enough for us to be certain, and, in a story which is essentially a metonym for the lasting effects of the Troubles on the generation who came of age when the violence was at its most intense, this is not the kind of detail that is worth being equivocal about.

It is a shame that such aspects aren’t developed, given that the most compelling section of the play is Ian’s sustained recall of the day of the bombing, which takes us back to the grim pride and celebration which greeted him in a Loyalist bar after the deed was done. In this male play the remembered character of Sheila is perhaps the most sympathetic: she was given to the shy Ian as a reward for his success and their clumsy encounter outside the bar that night resulted in pregnancy, shame, and a hushed visit to England for an abortion. But even this story, which the unmarried Ian learned of only years later, feels a bit hackneyed.

The play is redeemed by the consummate skill of the actors, Conlon especially: what makes Quietly so compelling, despite these problems with the plot, is the brilliant realisation of the characters under Jimmy Fay’s direction. Jimmy and Ian are brilliantly observed types, and we come to know them best through their body language. The tension across Ian’s back and arms was visible through his dated leather jacket as he stood on the stage, feet firmly planted and ready to respond if Jimmy’s wired, angry grief flared into violence. For most of the play, Robert stood behind the bar with his arms folded. It wasn’t that he didn’t look at what was going on between the protagonists, but he very deliberately did not see it.

In many respects Quietly would have worked much better on television than it does on stage: a screenplay would have given more space to backstory, and it would have enabled viewers to see the city beyond the pub’s walls—Belfast is the most extraordinary character. What McCafferty might have written is a post-peace process equivalent to Love Lies Bleeding (1993), Ronan Bennett’s masterful story of personal loss and recrimination amidst political and paramilitary conflict. What the audience can be grateful for is that the actors carry this play, despite its shortfalls, so brilliantly.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is Executive Editor at the Oxonian Review.