By David Hennessy
“There is still a lot of anger and fear and ignorance of each other’s communities there under the surface even though it’s massively improved,” begins Belfast actor Patrick O’Kane, one of the stars of a new story about truth and forgiveness in Belfast from renowned Northern Irish playwright, Owen McCafferty.
In Quietly, former Tir Chonaill Gaels footballer O’Kane plays Jimmy, a Catholic, who comes face to face with the man who killed his father with a loyalist bomb. Declan Conlon’s Ian, only a boy when he committed the act, has sought out Jimmy to apologise and the meeting in an empty pub reveals that there has been pain on both sides.
Quietly has already played at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and the Edinburgh Festival last year and in the process won The Writers’ Guild Award for Best Play, Fringe First Award and the Stage Awards Best Actor Award for Patrick.
Patrick cautions against over hasty attempts to close the book on The Troubles: “Things haven’t necessarily been fundamentally resolved. We see that in events like the presidential visit but also the arrest of Gerry Adams and the flags protest: You see how little it takes to spark old enmities. That’s disappointing and discouraging. “Sores within Northern Ireland continue to fester and around the state visit, there was also a lot of rancour about the invitation of Martin McGuinness to the royal banquet so those sores will continue to fester unless certain issues are addressed. How you address those issues is the question really.
“There’s a lot of pressure on or expectation of politicians to deliver some kind of platform whereby these issues are aired and resolved and while it’s understandable there’s expectation and pressure on those, if we’re being really honest, do we have any right to have those expectations? Do we have any right to apply that pressure on people who after all may or may not be qualified to provide such a platform? What were these people before they became politicians?
“It may be that some sort of public platform that is run by the reconciliation industry is not necessarily the right place to do it. It may be that these conversations can only be resolved in the quiet conversations between the characters that may or may not occur in empty pubs like in the play.
“We’re at a point of truth and recrimination rather than truth and reconciliation and until we get beyond truth and recrimination, we’ll never really achieve reconciliation. Truth and recrimination is part of an old lexicon, an old vocabulary that doesn’t do us any good. You have to change that lexicon, you have to create a new vocabulary in order to move forward and that’s kind of what happens in the play and I’m not sure even how conscious the two characters are that that’s what they are doing. They come in with an old language, an old vocabulary, they work it to a point of standstill and they realise that it’s not going to get them anywhere and they do something different and that’s what enables them to leave each other as positively as they do.”
Patrick’s screen credits include The Fall, Game of Thrones, Good Vibrations, Jamaica Inn and Strike Back. He wasted no time in leaving his troubled home city for London as soon as he was old enough: “I came to London straight after school, as soon as I could really. Don’t get me wrong, I had a very happy home life, very loving family and good mates but it was just the whole pernicious nature of the insidious sectarianism. More than even the big dramatic events, I couldn’t be part of that really and even now, I wouldn’t want my children growing up with that kind of coded language, coded behaviour: What school you go to, how you say your alphabet, all that stuff.
“When I was growing up, I would hide my GAA kit from view so that I didn’t get harassed or even attacked on my way to training or a match. I do see massive improvement and I do see much more presence of the nationalist identity within Belfast and that’s all good and positive. I do wish as well that we could move on. You see Antrim shirts, Down shirts, the club shirts of various colours you would never have dared shown in those areas and that’s all great but we’ve done that now, we need to move on, just be more quietly confident. We don’t need to be making such big statements anymore, or it would be great if we didn’t need to be making such big statements anymore.”
A celebrated stage actor, Patrick has been overwhelmed with the reaction to this poignant play with many people relating to it in their own ways: “When we did this play in Belfast, there was a very potent atmosphere around it. It was one of those rare moments when the conversation onstage extended around the auditorium and came back to us. Those moments are to be cherished for actors really because you realise that you’re a part of something bigger than even the play because there’s an event happening, a genuine conversation happening and it’s a thing that only art can do: Addressing the present social concerns in a way that enables that conversation to happen freely. It’s something that politics and journalism can’t quite get, important and all as they are: It’s peculiar to the realms of art and when you’re involved in a piece of art that can manage to do that, it’s a really satisfying experience.”
Before finding drama, Patrick’s passion was sport and playing GAA is something he shares with the playwright. McCafferty and O’Kane played for the same club. On moving to London, O’Kane joined Tir Chonaill Gaels and enjoyed great success: “I was always interested in sport. To be honest with you, I would watch two flies walking up a wall as though it was a race. I loved the competitive nature of it, the camaraderie of team sports particularly.
“I went to theatre almost by accident, well entirely by accident: We were made to make up the audience of a school play and it had this real visceral impact on me, it was the nearest thing that I could get to sport. “I had many a good year with Tir Chonaill Gaels and I’m very grateful for that experience. I felt part of the whole experience of being Irish and in London, it was great. We were the first Tir Chonaill Gaels team to win a championship and we won the London championship, the London league and the British Championship all in one year in 1984 and then they definitely went on to be kind of a major force thereafter. Then I decided to go to university after that and that’s when I started studying drama.”
Quietly is not the first time O’Kane has acted for McCafferty, as he has featured in Closing Time, Scenes from the Big Picture, Shoot the Crow: Has the playwright ever revealed a part has been written with him in mind? “He certainly doesn’t tell me that, and I don’t think he does write for me. It’s chance that we have done so many things together. We both have a desire to make it as pure as we possibly can, so there’s always a kind of distillation process that goes on through the rehearsals, first time or in this case the third time. Each time we returned to Quietly, we tried to make it just that bit more pure and free of any unnecessary baggage and certainly of unwanted sentimentality.
“It’s so well written, all I have to do before I start the performance each night is to remember who I am and why I’m there and what it is I want from it and what my intention is when I walk through those doors into the bar. Then of course, all that changes when I get through the door but at long as I start off in the right place, the rest of it takes care of itself.”
Quietly is showing at Soho Theatre until June 22. For more information, go to: http://www.sohotheatre.com/.