There is much that is familiar from Irish drama about Owen McCafferty’s play. It’s set in a pub, it has to do with the past haunting the present and the action is minimal – the substance of the play lies in the dialogue. There are similarities there, for example, with Conor McPherson’s 1997 play The Weir.
But it is another feature of Ireland that drives this fine, tense piece of drama (first seen at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and acclaimed at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe). The pub in question is in Belfast, the dialogue is between two 52-year-old men – strangers, yet linked by a horrific event that happened when both were 16. It is the long shadow of Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” that looms over both of them.
A play about truth, courage and forgiveness, Quietly offers no easy answers. It’s set in 2009, with Poland playing Northern Ireland in a World Cup qualifier. Polish bartender Robert is watching the match along with taciturn local Jimmy. The two trade in the sort of insults that characterise amicable football rivalry. But the mood changes when Ian walks in. Suddenly, in Jimmy Fay’s impeccably paced production, the air seems to thicken and we are catapulted back to another football match in 1974, when a group of Catholic men watching the game in the bar were murdered by an Ulster Volunteer Force bomb.
Ian, we learn, threw the bomb. Jimmy’s father was among those killed. It was an atrocity that so devastated Jimmy’s life that we fear he might beat Ian to a pulp at any moment. But instead the two talk – grudgingly, haltingly – until they reach, if not reconciliation, then at least a level of understanding. It’s deftly controlled in McCafferty’s taut writing and the precision of the encounter does not obscure the greater reach of the discussion: such life-long grief afflicts communities worldwide that have been scarred by conflict. It’s not for nothing that both events in the play are pinned to football matches: tribalism, when exploited, turns individuals into “them”. That is what both men come to realise. And the play ends with a newer, ugly expression of intolerance, as anti-Polish sentiment boils over outside the pub.
Little happens then, but the quiet is important: McCafferty draws decades of entrenched loathing and anguish into this modest room. And the three performances are painfully good. Patrick O’Kane is riveting as Jimmy, glowering with pent-up rage: you flinch every time he moves. Declan Conlon matches him, bringing to Ian the leaden tread and watchfulness of a man who has spent his life carrying a burden of guilt and resentment. Robert Zawadzki watches on, his body language delicately suggesting the changing mood in the room but also reflecting the fact that he too needs to be wary. Quietly excellent drama.