Owen McCafferty’s play Quietly depicts a highly charged confrontation between two men on opposite sides of a violent past in their shared city of Belfast. An Abbey Theatre production, Quietly, directed by Jimmy Fay, is currently on an extended run through September 25 at The Irish Repertory Theatre and stars Patrick O’Kane, Robert Zawadzki, and Declan Conlon. In this interview, Mr. O’Kane discusses with StageBuddy his role as Jimmy and some of the ideas prominent in Quietly, which has garnered wide critical acclaim both in the States and across the pond.
What has the experience been like for you as an actor to portray a character such as Jimmy, whose pent-up anger is really a driving force of the drama and the tension of Quietly? How does one tap into such an emotion for so long and maintain its realism?
It's been a privilege to have been integral to the telling of an important story of and for our times. In the playing of it, it is not really a question of tapping into an emotion for a long time; it is about keeping it simple, in terms of who I am, what I know and what I want and need before I walk through the door -- the rest is about listening to the offers the other actors are making and responding as truthfully as possible and within the spirit of what we agreed in rehearsals.
And to have done this on and off for a number of years… has your approach to the character changed at all from the beginning?
My approach to the character hasn't changed over the passage of time. However, the circumstances in which we do the show are never the same each time we return to the play, and this has an influence on what we focus on or what we feel is in need of more, (or less), emphasis. These differences are quantum and it would take a keen eye to spot them.
As a man and as an actor, what do you feel that you have learned from the character of Jimmy and from the play as a whole?
Jimmy, like Ian, is determined to assert his personal narrative, his truth; he learns that truth is superseded by honesty and that this can only be achieved by listening. Only by really listening can we hope to arrive at understanding.
Being from Belfast, what does the play mean to you on a personal level?
Quietly has great personal resonance. It speaks not only of our past, but of our future. In the absence of effective societal mechanisms to address the issues of the past, individuals and non-governmental organizations are taking it upon themselves to address these issues in quiet conversations -- and maybe this is the best way to address such deeply personal issues -- but the danger of not having societal mechanisms is that there is no public space to have a genuine conversation about these matters and, in such a void, old resentments can fester and reignite or be redirected into a new form of sectarianism: racism.
Quietly portrays a confrontation between two men for whom the line between the personal and political have been violently blurred. Do you feel that there is a distinction that should, or even can, be made between the political and the personal?
The personal is always political, whether it is with a capital P or a small p.
From your perspective, how has the reception of Quietly, and your character, varied on either side of the Atlantic? Do you feel that it is as well understood over here, or understood differently?
Each time we do the play, unfortunately, it seems ever more timely. People have been struck by the universality of the play's core dilemmas, despite the specificity of the setting and vernacular language. Fear of the other, the outsider, and castigating groups because of their ethnic or religious denomination are as prevalent here as they are in the North of Ireland.
In your opinion, to what degree does the relationship between Jimmy and Ian, and this type of confrontation, represent the current state of affairs in Northern Ireland? How does the Polish barman, Robert, fit into this equation?
Belfast is a different and better place than it was in the three decades leading up to the 1998 Agreement. Sectarian violence is very low and sectarian killings virtually non-existent. A significant financial dividend as the result of the peace agreement has transformed the city, both physically and commercially. It is now one of the most popular destiny nations in Europe for weekend getaways. However, a significant minority have not fared so well financially, and a smaller minority has never accepted the peace agreement. Political affiliation remains true to old tribal fault lines and the nature and quality of political debate is as depressingly dismal as ever, with very poor political leadership. Demographically, Belfast is even more polarized now than it was during the years of conflict. This is not good and the people who feel the hard end of this situation, unfortunately, are the immigrant community, so the experience of Robert, the barman, is representative of the darkness lurking beneath the new, peaceful Northern Ireland.
Can you comment on the very tense sort of balancing act maintained on stage between you and Mr. Conlon, and how you, Conlon, and Mr. Zawadzki, as actors, work together to convey this tension to the audience?
I can't comment on the tension on stage, except to say that we achieve it by listening to each other, thereby creating space for the story to unfold. Credit is also, obviously due to the writer, and also to our director, Jimmy Fay, who facilitated an easy creative conversation throughout rehearsals; a conversation with which all the artists engaged and in which nobody felt threatened. That process gave us the confidence to be daring and generous with the choices we were making.
Rarely on stage are the silences as pregnant with meaning as they are in Quietly. What do the silences mean to you and what is it like to act in such a play where the unspoken is as important as the spoken?
The silences underpin the emotional intensity of the story and offer the audience space to consider what is really being said and left unsaid. Language, in Northern Ireland and beyond, is historically minutely codified. On a simple level, they are honest responses to very difficult situations -- after all, how would you respond to hearing, for the first time and from the perpetrator himself, the story of the sequence of events which led to your father being blown to bits? Nothing can prepare you for that.
Performances of Quietly continue through September 25 at the Irish Repertory Theatre.