STAGE STRUCK

In the­atre we can get the whole story, says Peter Craw­ley

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - OPINION -

At first it sounds like a sour joke. A North­ern Ir­ish man in his 50s seeks out an­other, a man whose life he changed for­ever by lob­bing a bomb when they were teenagers. He has not come to apol­o­gise; just to tell his story. Af­ter an ex­plo­sive in­tro­duc­tion, the ag­grieved man, Jimmy, set­tles with with­er­ing scorn into his part “in the truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process”.

One of the great strengths in Owen McCaf­ferty’s pow­er­ful and con­tained drama, Qui­etly, which ends in the Pea­cock this week, is that it takes that process ut­terly se­ri­ously, even if its characters do not. “We have been told we are not ready for that,” Jimmy says of such con­flict res­o­lu­tion, “not ma­ture enough. No one is pre­pared to make the first move.”

As the di­a­logue un­folds in front of an in­de­pen­dent observer – here a Pol­ish bar­tender who works partly as a sur­ro­gate for the au­di­ence – each man ex­plains him­self in a tense col­lab­o­ra­tion (“You don’t know the start of the story. You only know the start of your fuck­ing story”) and grad­u­ally, un­com­fort­ably, they be­gin to lis­ten. The play isn’t per­fect, but it is calm and care­ful, and the re­sult it hopes for ac­tu­ally goes deeper than re­pen­tance or for­give­ness. It hopes for un­der­stand­ing.

Right now the stage seems just the place for such en­coun­ters. In Philip Ri­d­ley’s Ten­der Na­palm, end­ing this week­end at the Project, an­other cou­ple are locked to­gether in a fan­tasy world of as­sured mu­tual de­struc­tion. Ex­chang­ing bul­lets and grenades in a par­ody of love over­tures, their sep­tic role­play con­ceals much darker real-world trau­mas: a lost child and a grim, haunted mar­riage. But, con­clud­ing right where it be­gins, the play sug­gests a pur­ga­to­rial loop, from which only the truth could set them free. Not ev­ery con­flict can be re­solved.

Drama gen­er­ally prefers it that way, be­cause con­flict is a re­li­able en­gine: with­out the com­bus­tion of ir­rec­on­cil­able dif­fer­ences, a plot can’t go very far. But as a place where we could re­hearse po­lit­i­cal al­ter­na­tives, the the­atre is also some­times pre­pared to make the first move.

The most ex­tra­or­di­nary part of a cur­rent dou­ble bill from the renowned com­pany Field Day, David Ire­land’s Half a Glass of Water, imag­ines a meet­ing be­tween a bru­talised young man and his one-time abuser. Both fi­nally talk openly about the event in the hope of avert­ing fur­ther hor­rors.

The deeper mes­sage of Ire­land’s play is that any kind of peace process is on­go­ing. In daily life we rarely get the op­por­tu­nity that the­atre of­fers to see a story con­cluded, to hear the other side of the story, and rec­on­cile its truth with our own.

Back in McCaf­ferty’s Belfast pub, Jimmy puts the mat­ter as well as it can be put, and he could be speak­ing about ev­ery­one you en­counter in the the­atre. “We met, we un­der­stand each other, that’s enough.” pcraw­ley@irish­times.com

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